A buffer state is a nation situated in between two separate powers. In general, the buffer state acts as an independent country unassociated with the rival nations or empires. This nation provides a cushion that prevents belligerent actions from occurring. This differs from a satellite state in that the nation generally holds a neutralist foreign policy, creating a buffer zone rather than a position for the hostile powers to hedge military and economic objectives.
The concept of a buffer state was first developed during the 1600s when the major European powers began to establish global empires. These empires, traditionally segmented into isolated regimes around the world, started to meet on foreign continents. Certain powers took control of large swaths of land next to other powers. To prevent major conflicts from arising all around the planet, certain nations positioned between colonized states were left to their own devices to help maintain the balance of power.
Over time, as colonization continued into areas previously uninhabited, buffer states were established by sheer natural occurrence. Sometimes, neutral zones were created because of natural geographic challenges such as highly mountainous regions or dense woodlands. Other times, the areas simply featured native populations that could not be conquered by the hostile powers. If both sides supported factions in the country, many times the two powers were stuck in a quagmire without gains, creating a buffer zone.
One of the most famous buffer states in history is that of Afghanistan. During the 1800s, the mountainous nation was positioned between the Russian Empire to the north and a major section of the British Empire, namely the future nations of India and Pakistan to the south. Central Asia was the center of strategic rivalry between the two empires known as “The Great Game.” Each of the powers vied for control over tribal lands and nations throughout the region, setting up satellite states. The British Empire in particular, launched a major conflict, the First Anglo-Afghan War in 1838, in an attempt to set up Afghanistan as a puppet state.
Since the end of the World Wars, the concept of a buffer state has been replaced by the idea of a demilitarized zone (DMZ). These are generally intentionally placed regions between conflict areas established by treaties in an effort to halt military action. Major modern examples include the Cypriot DMZ between the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and the Republic of Cyprus, the buffer zone between North Korea and South Korea, and the Sinai Peninsula separating Israel from Egypt.