Why do governments still assume that "the more land, the better"?



There is constant political struggle for land between two or more nations around the world, where two different countries claiming to own a land area even though another country controls (or "occupy") it. Whenever a region asks for independence, usually the central country refuses.

A non-exhaustive list:

  • Both Italy and France claim the glacier between the summits of Mont-Blanc and Mont-Blanc de Courmayeur
  • Serbia claims Kosovo is theirs
  • Both Egypt and Sudan claim the Hala'ib triangle
  • Pakistan, India and China all 3 considers the Kashmir region to be theirs (even though Pakistan and China finally agreed on how to split it in two)
  • Both Argentina and the UK wants the Falkland Islands
  • Spain refuses to even consider a possible Catalan or Basque independence
  • UK agreed to consider Scottish independence, however they invested massively for the campaign in favour of the no camp, pretty much promising the end of the world if the yes would win.
  • Both Greece and Turkey wants to control Cyprus
  • Both Ukraine and Russia considers Crimea to be their
  • Both Georgia and Russia claim South Ossetia and Abkhazia
  • Italy went to war in 1915 in the hope to grab only two very small pieces of land (south Tyrol and Trieste)
  • Both Germany and France have claimed Alsace-Lorraine before 1945.

and so on and so forth...

(Please don't comment about saying something in this list is inaccurate, I have to summary those conflicts in one line, and if the way I did them is not satisfactory then edit the question rather than commenting, thanks. And please, PLEASE, do not state that you are in favour of country X and against country Y in one of those disputes, I AM NOT INTERESTED)

It seems like pretty much all geopolitics and wars are based on the assumption that "more land is better". This assumption might have been true in the past, and is still true in the rare case where the land has particularly rich resources such as petroleum or mines, however, in the average case where the land just contains arable land, farms and/or cities, this is not the case.

Governments are usually accumulating debts, and usually the larger and/or more populated they are, the more debts they have, as they have to provide services for more people, which costs more than the income they will have from taxes they get from those people. So actually, by enlarging a country's area and/or population, that country would lose money.

As an example let's imagine that Kosovo somehow agrees to be controlled by Serbia again. This would be great for Serbian national pride in the short term but would be catastrophic for their finances, as they'd have to spend a lot, and I mean a lot of money to rebuild the region to Serbian standards, and would get no extra income as this region is very poor and nobody could pay taxes. This is just the most obvious example, but the same concept applies to all other examples.

I thus don't understand why, for the conflicts I mentioned above, the countries would not just give up the area to their adversaries, especially if the situation is hopeless, as they're not only avoiding wars, but also winning money in the process.


Posted 2015-09-09T13:41:46.237

Reputation: 6 497

Also, perhaps I'm biased because I come from a country that refused to expand multiple times. (french Savoie and austian Voralberg asked to come in the Swiss confederation, but were refused for a variety of reasons) – Bregalad – 2015-09-09T13:47:56.370

Savoie wasn't French at the time people there considered joining Switzerland in a serious way. – Relaxed – 2015-09-09T15:36:21.723

You missed the fact that France and Spain butted heads for decades (circa 1600s) and as far as I recall, largely ended up with almost unchanged borders. Also can add a prominent modern example involving major states: Kuril Islands (Japan/Russia) – user4012 – 2015-09-09T15:48:53.197

Thinking about it, I am not sure I understand your question. You name some specific reasons yourself, like patriotic pride. Why would you think narrow financial interest would necessarily be stronger or that it makes sense to think about it in terms of an abstract lust for territory? Things like patriotism, the need to protect the statu quo or a sphere of influence, etc. are all very real. – Relaxed – 2015-09-09T16:14:31.753

1Along the same lines, you present some of these disputes in a very simplistic way that contributes to the lack of understanding. As far as I know, Russia does not claim South Abkhazia or Ossetia and the UK or Argentina care a lot more about territorial integrity and posturing than about the Falklands/Malvinas per se. – Relaxed – 2015-09-09T16:15:57.743

2Why do football teams battle over the trophy every year? It's just how humans do things. :) – None – 2015-09-09T16:38:40.207

1Also, there are many examples of countries that do not want to extend their territory, including in fact Cyprus, South Ossetia and Abkhazia but also things like the French colonial empire, the US-led administration of Iraq or, to some extent what happened in the east of Congo. In all those cases, other states effectively controlled (or could have controlled) an area militarily but choose to exert influence by propping up a client state rather than formally annexing/keeping territory. – Relaxed – 2015-09-09T17:45:42.543

IIRC The counter example is "Moosylvania" from Rocky & Bullwinkle. Neither the US nor Canada wanted to claim of the island. – Reed Shilts – 2015-09-09T20:53:48.710

6Of course more land is better. How else are you going to cast spells? – Publius – 2015-09-10T06:29:10.403

8Imagine a country that doesn't care about land. By now, it probably has no land, and thus doesn't exist. – user253751 – 2015-09-10T09:37:40.337

1I don't think your premise that expansion necessarily costs money is correct. You can always claim a piece of land first, then neglect it as much as you like and not spend anything on it. It's like if someone offers me a free car or free anything. I can just accept it, leave it somewhere, and not bother maintaining it. – Kenny LJ – 2017-06-22T02:32:26.257

@Bregalad In the example of Spain not giving independence is not a good one. Spain will lose LOTS of money if they agree on that – Ivan – 2017-09-27T08:13:44.823



The reasons to contest land vary greatly, and one or more can be applicable in any given situation.

  1. Some land has strategic value. High ground, forward staging area, airplane landing ground, fleet base/port.

    Examples include Gibraltar, or Golan Heights, or Philippines. Falkand Islands were Royal Navy base in WWI and WWII. Crimea has Sevastopol.

    This gets slightly less important with nuclear powered fleet when bunkerage is less of a Big Deal like it was in WWI. But logistics will ALWAYS be logistics.

  2. Some land has economic value.

    Iraq's annexation of Kuwait was over oil wells. Crimea has natural resources (even more so Donetsk and other areas Russia is trying to steal from Ukraine). Scotland has major hydrocarbon resources.

  3. Some land has major national consciousness/morale value

    Kosovo isn't just "some land Serbs and Albanians contest". It is an integral and vital part of Serbian history and national identity.

  4. Some land has strategic value by creating defense in depth.

    China's control of areas around core Han China. Russia's efforts to subjugate a belt of dependent locales between Russian heartland and Europe (especially Ukraine).

  5. The larger the population/area, the more the size of the economy, the more the country's power (military power ultimately derives from both population size - "quantity has quality all of its own" - and economic might).

  6. Face saving.

    Russia really really doesn't need contested Kuril islands. But to concede them to Japan would be to show weakness.

  7. Wishes of the local population.

    Going back to example of Falkland War, the population of Falklands did NOT want to be under Argentinian sovereignty. Actually, most territorial conflicts arise out of mixed-demographics population where two co-located fractions want to be under 2 separate sovereignties (e.g., Russians/Ukrainians in areas of Ukraine, or Germans/Czechs in Sudetenland, or Albanians/Serbs in Kosovo).

  8. Overall concept of sovereignty. If you let a small sliver of territory go, everyone else with a claim to your territory has a precedent (which is exactly what happened to the late British Empire)


Posted 2015-09-09T13:41:46.237

Reputation: 84 347

3"This gets slightly less important with nuclear powered fleet" Except that nobody has one of those. The US has nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, Russia has a couple of nuclear-powered cruisers and some ice-breakers and several countries (including those two) have nuclear-powered submarines. That is, as far as I'm aware, the sum total of the world's nuclear-powered shipping. – David Richerby – 2015-09-09T20:17:52.963

@DavidRicherby - True. I'm projecting a future trend. – user4012 – 2015-09-09T20:22:24.527

3OK but we've had this technology for sixty years already so don't hold your breath! – David Richerby – 2015-09-09T21:55:16.393

3@DavidRicherby There is also one (1) French nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. – Relaxed – 2015-09-10T08:21:03.780

Mohair is absolutely right about Crimea, it's not the resources, it's the fleet. If Russia loses the naval base there, they lose their fleet and the control of the Black Sea. – Malcolm – 2015-09-10T12:58:05.143

@Malcolm - there's like 7-30 independent reasons for Crimea. Fleet definitely is among major ones :) My answer was meant as a retrospective, not exaustive list of every reason for every possible conflict – user4012 – 2015-09-10T13:28:17.570

Kuril islands also make the Barents sea the internal one, without them it would be international waters. – Anixx – 2015-09-10T17:18:48.787


  • A part of a country that wants to secede is actually well off, it would leave the 'motherland' poorer (south tyrollia from italy, Slovenia from Yugoslavia, Catalonia ... ).
  • < – mart – 2015-09-23T14:47:59.517


    It's rare that a country conquers or annexes land solely for the purpose of enlarging their territory. Usually the territory in question has some economic or strategic value beyond the land itself that makes it worth acquiring. Russia certainly didn't take Crimea because they needed room to expand. They took it because it has a huge, strategic naval base, among other reasons.

    Yes, the country will take on additional costs in providing services, but to say it will lose money is not necessarily true. In the short term this is almost certainly the case. But if the land was at all worth taking, then the benefits should outweigh the costs over time.


    Posted 2015-09-09T13:41:46.237

    Reputation: 609


    To cover a few reasons not mentioned so far:

    In a few isolated cases, when land not traditionally controlled by anyone is contested, there is either a strategic or economic motivation. The Spratly Islands claimed by both China and the Philippines, have substantial oil reserves under them.

    To a degree, China's building of bases and islands appears to be aimed at gaining control over some very busy shipping lanes, that carry manufactured goods from the rising industries of their direct competition... Vietnam, Thailand, PNG, etc... Control the lanes, the shipping becomes more expensive, those nations aren't as competitive.

    In a few cases, such as Gibraltar or the Golan Heights, there is a strategic motivation. Arab forces attacked Israel at least twice off of Golan in 1948 and 1956, before Israel took it in 1967. Given past history, they are in no mood to give it back, especially after the epic stand of the 7th Brigade in the Yom Kippur war.

    But, quite often, it is just putting forth a strong face. Giving up land to another nation or especially having it taken by force is appearing weak to the world, which is why the UK initiated a war over the almost meaningless Falklands, a war they were a few more Exocet missile hits away from losing. The two large carriers the UK is currently building at considerable expense, are motivated at least in part by the closeness of that conflict.

    And, finally, there are some disputed areas that have changed hands so many times, that it's hard to say who has the right to it, except by right of possession. Jerusalem falls into that category... owned by a variety of nation/states over the last millenia. In ancient times, Jerusalem also stood at a major crossroads, so there was a strategic/economic interest as well, a long time ago.


    Posted 2015-09-09T13:41:46.237

    Reputation: 9 859

    1Errr what? The UK initiated the Falkland's war ?! We shouldn't have heard the same version of the story... – Bregalad – 2017-06-21T06:18:16.660

    1No, Argentina initiated it with a blatant military grab. The UK stretched itself to the limit, pulled off some amazing feats and took substantial casualties, over a pair of islands with nil economic value, and no real threat to the lives of the citizens, just a threat of deportation. They did so to show the other tinpot dictators of the world that the UK was not going to be pushed around. – tj1000 – 2017-06-21T12:34:17.277