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What is a Buffer State?

By Jason C. Chavis
Updated May 23, 2024
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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Since the end of the World Wars, the concept of a buffer state has been replaced by the idea of a demilitarized zone (DMZ).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.

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Discussion Comments
By jmc88 — On Oct 23, 2011

@jcraig - I totally agree with you. People do not realize that a buffer state does not have to just be a country it could also be considered some sort of boundary.

Say there is a large swamp or a mountain range or even a river, this makes it hard for someone to cross and the middle of any could be considered a buffer state of sorts.

The thing about using a geographic formation as a buffer state is that the mutual understanding is usually that the side closest to each state is considered theirs so the middle would have to be considered the buffer state.

By jcraig — On Oct 22, 2011

@Izzy78 - I have to disagree. Although a buffer state can be used as a way to gauge the situation on an international level I think it will only become one depending on the specific situation.

Say if the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea were to be invaded, it would become an international incident, which will become a world matter.

However, for the most part buffer states are simply places that ease people's minds or are used as political ploys in order to make people think that they will not get invaded.

Also, a buffer state does not have to be a neutral area, it can just be a natural boundary. A mountain or another large state in between the two can be used as a buffer between the two countries and can be considered a buffer state.

By Izzy78 — On Oct 22, 2011

@stl156 - I agree with your statement to an extent. The reason why a buffer zone is put in place is to give a warning to countries to keep from invading.

Anytime you have an area that is neutral or a country that is neutral it becomes an automatic international incident and several countries start to worry.

The reason for a buffer zone is just to try and ease minds and make sure wars do not start. There is a mutual understanding that neither country will invade and the buffer will stay un-occupied. As long as it stays un-occupied the countries will stay at a stalemate and keep their own Cold War going.

By stl156 — On Oct 21, 2011

I have always thought that the concept of a buffer state was simply a diplomatic compromise to try and ensure people that people right next door to them will not attack.

The Rhineland between Word War One and World War Two was an area that would not be occupied and this was done to ensure that if the Germans were coming in to attack France the French could prepare.

However, in reality, at least up until when Hitler gathered enough power and forces to attack, the Germans did not dare enter the buffer state, otherwise it would come to the world's attention and it would create an international incident.

By JessicaLynn — On Oct 20, 2011

@strawCake - Good point. I feel like a very large buffer state would probably fare better than a smaller one. At least they would have more resources and be more difficult to attack.

Anyway, interestingly enough during the Cold War, we had our own buffer state here in the United States: Canada! It would have been difficult for Russians to get the US, or for Americans to get to Russian without going through Canada. Or at least flying over it!

I read an article awhile back that this is part of the reason out and out fighting never broke out between the United States and Russia. Thanks, Canada!

By strawCake — On Oct 20, 2011

I feel like things could get quite dangerous for a buffer state. In fact, Afghanistan is a good example! As the article said, in 1838 Britain tried to take over because of Afghanistan's close proximity to Russia.

I definitely think a buffer state would have to watch their back, so to speak. If the conflict between the two bordering nations grew too large, I could see it spilling over into the buffer state. I know in theory a buffer state is supposed to deter that kind of thing. But I assume if a conflict got heated enough, the two border states wouldn't care about angering the buffer state.

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