To many observers, referring to Ukraine as a possible buffer zone reeks of retrograde Realpolitik. To echo German Chancellor Angela Merke’s put-down of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical mindset, power politics seems “so 20th Century.” Foreign policies based on the balance of power, great powers’ claims to special rights over weaker neighbors, and buffer zones were supposed to have been consigned to history’s rubbish heap once the Cold War ended to inaugurate a new international order featuring respect for legal principles, people’s freedom to decide their own fate, and universal human rights norms.
Yet power politics, far from being obsolete, appears to be heading “back to the future” in Eurasia, if indeed it was ever gone. If so, it is time to dust off the history books and to relearn the lessons of what used to be called the Great Game, a contest of position and maneuver in the borderlands between great powers, where such rules as apply are not normative but strategic.
In response to these contemporary developments, the Carnegie Corporation of New York awarded Columbia University a grant to conduct a collaborative research project with the Colin Powell School of Civic and Global Leadership at City College on “Rimlands, Buffer Zones, and Great Power Rivalry,” directed by Institute Affiliates Jack Snyder (Robert and Renee Belfer Professor International Relations at Columbia) and Rajan Menon (Anne and Bernard Spitzer professor International Relations, Powell School, and Senior Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute).
The project has produced the following papers, available for download here: