This post is part of the “Rethinking Nation and Nationalism” symposium.

The Islamic State’s very graphic attempt to redraw borders in the Middle East has understandably drawn significant attention. This effort, however, is only one of a number of attempts to reshape borders in the region. Although the location of the border between Israel and Palestine (and Israel’s other neighbors) are the most commonly explored cases, since World War II border-reshaping projects have taken place in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, the former United Arab Republic, Algeria, Iraq and Yemen, among others. Yet, projects to reshape state borders are not uniquely, or even primarily, a Middle Eastern phenomenon. Of all new borders drawn since World War II – excluding borders drawn as the result of decolonization – 88 percent lie outside the Middle East.

Given the recurring attempts to end conflict by dividing territory and the consistent finding that conflicts over territory are especially long, brutal and destructive, what is the likely impact of border reordering projects? My recent research in International Organization finds that the link between territorial division and international conflict is mediated by the ideological meaning populations invest in the divided territory. Where populations believe territory that is newly located on the other side of an international border is appropriately part of their national homeland, violent international conflict is significantly more likely. Conversely, where and when states lose territory that is excluded from the scope of the national homeland, international conflict is less likely. Not all territory, in other words, is equal ground.

This research understands homelands to be products of nationalist political projects rather than objectively given realities. Yet, regardless of the reason for the identification of a particular parcel as the “home”land, once defined as such, the territory in question is transformed into an indispensable part of the nation’s self-identity and control of it becomes the sine qua non of national existence. This is not to say that the definition of homelands cannot change. They can.

There are a number of pathways through which the application of homeland territoriality to a specific parcel could increase international conflict. As Benjamin Miller has argued, the existence of homeland territory outside a nation-state’s borders is likely to increase the domestic appeal of territorially revisionist forces because it provides a substantive issue for war and makes it easier for leaders to initiate international conflict as a way of diverting attention from domestic political challenges.

Relatedly, the successful application of homeland territoriality to territory may be part of what renders it apparently indivisible. Since populations that lost parts of their homeland are more likely to reject the legitimacy of the territorial status quo, they may be more likely to use force to change it if given the ability and opportunity to do so. Their irredentism, in turn, threatens the territorial integrity of their neighbors and intensifies the security dilemma in the region, making violent conflict even more likely. Finally, the centrality of homelands in nationalist thinking also makes homelands a likely focal point for collective action. This means that the loss of homeland territory would lower the barrier to violent collective action by acting as a focal point that leads members of a nation to believe that others would act with them if they seek its return.

Fully exploring these plausible mechanisms, however, requires a prior demonstration that homelands, despite their socially constructed and apparently ethereal character, do have an independent impact on international conflict. To date, this has been not been demonstrated because of the persistent gap between the realist and materialist measures frequently used to identify “homelands” and the constructivist underpinnings of the intuition that homeland territory plays a different role than non-homeland territory in conflict. To address this gap, I developed an operationalization of the “homeland” status of a territory that is based on domestic discourse about land. Since this is a constructivist measure that operationalizes the way theories of nationalism understand homelands, it enables a sincere test of the constructivist expectation that losing homeland territory would lead to more conflict than losing non-homeland territory.

This measure of the homeland status of territory is based on the observation that nationalists sanctify the area that they consider to be their homeland and commonly use different language to speak of homeland and non-homeland territories. The rhetorical differences between how homeland and non-homeland territories are spoken of generate an instantly recognizable logo that penetrates the popular imagination and forms a powerful emblem for the nation. It also makes determining a territory’s homeland status for a given population possible. A discourse-based measure of the homeland status of territory also has the advantage of delinking homeland status from other dimensions of nationalism (most prominently ethnicity) and allowing the homeland status of particular territories to vary over time and within a nation.

I used the domestic discourse about territory captured by the U.S. government’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) to identify the homeland status of territory in the case of every new international border drawn between 1945 and 1996 – excluding cases of decolonization. As a source, FBIS has three main advantages: 1) it systematically transcribed open source news broadcasts from almost every country (it excludes Canada, the United States, Eritrea, Zanzibar, Tanganyika and the Seychelles) during this period; 2) its records are searchable by keyword; and 3) it translates all foreign news broadcasts into English. Because it provides reasonable access to how actors in nearly every case where a new border was drawn since 1945 talked about the land on the other side of this new border, discourse about territory captured by FBIS provides a feasible and theoretically consistent proxy for identifying areas that the relevant populations consider part of their homeland.

Following the insight that discourse about homeland territory would differ from discourse about non-homeland territory, I coded land on the other side of a new international border as homeland territory if states, state executives or the leaders of political organizations in the state newly excluded from that territory flagged it as part of their homeland. Specifically, I coded territory as homeland territory if these actors lamented its loss as a loss of part of the “homeland,” “fatherland” or “motherland,” if they called for its “unification” or “reunification” with the metropole, if they described the territorial division in invidious terms as a “partition” or an “amputation” or if they described the presence of another state on that territory as an “occupation.” In each case, I conducted a search for the name or names, along with alternative transliterations, of the territory in question, as well as of major cities or significant historical sites in those territories, and of the border itself, to capture as much discourse about that territory as possible.

Coding the homeland status of divided territory in this way reveals significant variation in both the homeland status of adjacent territory that is lost and in the presence of international conflict. Violent international conflict following the drawing of a new international border occurred 43 percent of the time when homelands were not truncated, but 61 percent of the time when they were. The pattern persists for wars, with dyadic wars following the drawing of new international borders occurring 7 percent of the time when homelands were not truncated, but 19 percent of the time when they were.

Further analysis shows that the role of losing homeland territory in triggering violent international conflict persists even after controlling for other elements that could potentially account for the presence of homeland discourse about a territory and for conflict. These other elements include prior conflict, the presence of co-ethnics on the other side of the border, the economic value of the territory, the militarily strategic value of the territory, the regime type of the states facing each other, whether those states are allies and their relative military and economic capabilities. Changing the character of a new border from one that does not divide homelands to one that does – while holding all these other variables at their mean – is associated with a roughly 20 percent increase in the probability of violent international conflict and an 11 percent increase in the probability of a war between the states on either side of the border.

So what does this mean? First, while the results of this study confirm the repeated finding that territory plays a significant role in international conflict, they suggest that not all territory is equally important. Rather, territory that is defined by a group’s nationalism as part of the homeland is especially conflict prone. These results raise the possibility that the commonly observed relationship between territory and conflict may be driven by a subset of territorial disputes – those over homelands – rather than by territory, per se. In policy terms, the finding that dividing homelands tends to lead to additional conflict should, at the very least, be taken into account when territorial partitions are considered as potential solutions to international conflict.

Second, the beliefs of populations about the extent of their homelands are at least as important as material reality in shaping the likelihood of international conflict. This research provides a template for how such ideological constructs could be integrated into systematic, quantitative studies of international conflict while maintaining fidelity to the constructivist theories that identify ideology as a relevant variable.

Nadav Shelef is the Harvey M. Meyerhoff Professor of Israel Studies and an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of “Evolving Nationalism: Homeland, Religion and Identity in Israel” (Cornell University Press, 2010).