Since the start of 2000, five Latin American boundary disputes between neighboring states have resulted in the use of force, and two others in its deployment. These incidents involved ten of the nineteen independent countries of South and Central America.


Since the start of 2000, five Latin American boundary disputes between neighboring states have resulted in the use of force, and two others in its deployment. These incidents involved ten of the nineteen independent countries of South and Central America. In 1995, Ecuador and Peru went to war, resulting in more than a thousand deaths and injuries and significant economic loss. And yet, by international standards the Americas were comparatively free from interstate war during the twentieth century. Latin Americans for the most part do not fear aggression from their neighbors. They do not expect their countries to go to war with one another.

The puzzle that this paper seeks to solve is how to explain the following unusual cluster of traits in the hemisphere:

  • Territorial, boundary, and other disputes endure.
  • Interstate conflict over boundaries is relatively frequent.
  • Disputes sometimes escalate to military conflict because states recurrently employ low levels of force to shape aspects of bilateral relations.
  • Such escalation rarely reaches full-scale war.
  • Interstate war is infrequent.

Solving this puzzle may help point the way toward more effective prevention and resolution of conflicts about borders and territory.

It is encouraging to note that some ofthe longest-lasting and most serious boundary disputes in South America have been settled since 1990--Argentina and Chile, Ecuador and Peru, Chile and Peru, Brazil and all its neighbors. At the same time, however, similar border disputes have been exacerbated in the cases of Guyana, Venezuela, and Colombia and in Central America. Each of this second set of countries has been involved in at least one militarized interstate dispute since 1990. Nicaragua tops the list, having had militarized disputes with four states. Venezuela and Honduras have each had militarized disputes with three neighboring states. El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, and Colombia have each had militarized disputes with two neighbors. Since 1990 militarized interstate disputes have been frequent, therefore, yet only the dispute between Ecuador and Peru in 1995 escalated to war.

This paper contends that the structures of the international systems in South and Central America and their somewhat distant relations to the global system, as well as the panoply of procedures and institutions evident in inter-American relations, explain the infrequency and short duration of interstate wars. More specifically, the paper advances the following arguments:

  • Interstate war became rare thanks to a balance of power that developed in South America in the late nineteenth century. In Central America, U. S. intervention early in the twentieth century temporarily interrupted warfare.
  • Interstate war remained rare because both South and Central America were relatively insulated from the wider international system.
  • Innovative international regional institutions and procedures that began to develop in the nineteenth century and blossomed in the twentieth century fostered and consolidated interstate peace and provided effective international mediation when interstate war broke out.
  • The ideology of a shared identity also fostered interstate peace. For a long time Latin Americans for the most part have not believed that their country's neighbor is their enemy.
  • U. S. hegemony has been largely irrelevant to explaining the prospects of interstate war and peace in Latin America.
  • Geography and poor cartography made it difficult to settle some boundary disputes. British decolonization in mainland Latin America is a persistent source of territorial disputes.
  • Specific international procedures, especially the formal "freeze"of a dispute for a period of years and some international arbitral practices, helped old disputes linger.
  • The change in international maritime law (the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas) and the development of new technology to exploit marine and seabed resources raised the salience of many territorial disputes.
  • Inter-American peacekeeping institutions have been very effective, yet they also generate moral hazard. The peacekeeping norms, procedures, and institutions in inter-American relations produce public goods akin to insurance. They insure each member-state against the likelihood of protracted warfare. States can behave recklessly, militarizing disputes to serve domestic political objectives, certain that inter- national agents will stop the fighting and thus prevent serious injury. States can also stubbornly resist making compromises over boundary disputes, equally certain that undesired outcomes will not be imposed on them. The common thread is that an international public good--international institutions and procedures--provides a kind of insurance that frees state actors from some of the prudential constraints ordinarily imposed by interstate competition.
  • Democracy has a complex relationship to interstate war and peace. First, in some instances democratic practices and procedures directly intensified bilateral conflict between states over boundary or territorial issues. Second, in only one instance in Central America and the circum-Caribbean did democratization improve the prospects for territorial dispute settlement, although in South America democratic politics had a more salutary effect on peacemaking in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Third and most important, most of the time the existence of democratic practices and procedures or the process of democratization was unrelated to the evolution of boundary and territorial disputes. The democratic character of the political regime was causally related neither to dispute containment nor to dispute exacerbation.
  • Grand strategies have an important effect on shaping the prospects for interstate war and peace. There is good reason to suspect that developmental objectives are the most important factor in distinguishing cases where boundary and territorial disputes are settled from those where they fester. Where development becomes the key concern of domestic elites, territorial and boundary dispute settlement is likely to follow as a by-product, provided thinking about development is directly linked to thinking about peace. These elites fashion grand strategies to accomplish these goals. In these instances, many boundary and territorial disputes are likely to be settled during a relatively short time. Where sovereignty, boundary, and territorial concerns are accorded higher priority than developmental objectives, conflict at the border will linger and perhaps worsen.
  • International institutions and actors can tilt the balance of ideas and incentives toward development and employ their resources strategically to reduce the incidence of moral hazard while fostering interstate peace.
About the Author

Jorge I. Domínguez is the Clarence Dillon Professor of International Relations and director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. He is a founding member of the Inter-American Dialogue. Domínguez is the editor and coauthor of several Inter-American Dialogue books, including the first and second editions of Constructing Democratic Governance in Latin America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), as well as International Security and Democracy: Latin America and the Caribbean in the Post-Cold War Era (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998) and The Future of Inter-American Relations (Routledge, 2000).

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