solving world problems, one blog post at a time

It’s a new year and I’d like to start it by solving some world problems. So let’s get to it.

A couple of days ago a headline appeared on Google News that Argentina is again demanding that the U.K. cede the Falkland Islands to them. In 1982 a similar demand led to a war in which 907 people were killed and 1,657 wounded, according to Wikipedia, and a great deal of money was spent by both sides. Net result: status quo ante, or, in Spanish, nada.

This territorial dispute has led to actual armed conflict in recent memory (I was in London when Britain was mobilizing for war), but there are many other simmering territorial tussles going on worldwide. I know that the Spratly Islands, and many other islands, in the South China Sea are claimed by the surrounding countries (China, Philippines, Vietnam, et al.), all of whom are ready to fight for them. China and Japan have a similar beef about a different set of islands. And I read recently in The Economist that Colombia is unhappy with a ruling by the International Court of Justice on territorial waters that has favored Nicaragua.

So the methods for trying to resolve these territorial disputes include threats, military occupation, war, and court actions. The cost in blood and money has been high, and the parties involved mostly do not regard these matters as settled, which means that these disputes, with their attendant costs, will continue. In short, the existing approaches are not working. But I think I can fix this.

Here’s how. Territorial disputes should be settled not by fighting, but by purchase. The parties involved, instead of entering into a shooting war for the property, enter into a bidding war for it. Whoever is willing to pay the most for the disputed territory, pays that sum to the the other party in exchange for a formal acknowledgment of the purchaser’s perpetual sovereignty over the land and territorial waters. The agreement would be recorded at the United Nations or wherever else might support its validity and acceptance, and everyone’s maps would be updated accordingly. There, done.

But what if one of the countries is poor and the other one is rich? Well, the poor one can borrow, just like the new home-buyer. Chances are the poor country will have rich allies and friends who are willing to help out. And what would payment be settled in? I would suggest gold, but it could be anything agreed upon by the parties involved.

But why should you have to pay if you know you’re in the right? Well, it seems that everyone knows he’s in the right. You’re actually paying to settle the matter, and have everyone formally acknowledge that it is settled. And, as noted above, fighting for territory is costly anyway. Even filing an international lawsuit is costly, I bet.

And this is another point. The experience of Colombia with the International Court of Justice shows that appealing to a third-party referee is no guarantee of satisfaction on all sides or in their perception of fairness. A strength of the commercial approach is that the parties reach their own agreement face to face.

It might work something like this. The two parties, having agreed to use this approach, then agree on a neutral third party to act as arbiter and host. They draw up the documents describing exactly what is at issue—territory, waters, mineral rights, citizenship of residents, government property, and so on—and what the mode of payment will be. Then they get dickering. Perhaps as the result of a coin-toss, one side makes the first offer. If the other side accepts, they’re done. Otherwise, the second side must make a counteroffer. If I were designing this process, I’d let the parties themselves work out how the bidding happens—how many bidding rounds to have, minimum increments, extensions of the process, and so on—but there would need to be a limit. There would come a point when a final bid must be made.

The final bid should be a sealed bid by each side, submitted simultaneously to the arbiter. At that point the high bid wins and the auction is over. The low bidder collects payment and the paperwork is executed. The facts on the ground are then sorted out by a prearranged scheme.

Land that is bought seems to remain relatively uncontested—I think of the Louisiana Purchase and Alaska in the United States. And while emotions can run high during an auction, this process would be set up to minimize this; it would proceed over months, perhaps, and not by open outcry. Therefore the players’ minds could remain cool and calm, when the best decisions are made—the antithesis of war, which generates the strongest and worst of emotions.

I offer this as a sane, practical, cost-effective method of resolving territorial disputes. I believe that the calm, mature, cooler heads in the world would welcome it. And I believe that if we could ask those 907 people killed during the last Falklands dust-up, they would welcome it too.

Happy New Year.

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