It was the best of times. It was 1999. The U.S. and world economies were booming, and the U.S., for the first time in decades, was running a budget surplus. The European Union was succeeding better than expected, and the common currency, the euro, was adopted that year. Russia and the former communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe and Central Asia appeared to be making great strides in becoming free-market democracies. Even China was developing a market economy and constructively engaging with the rest of the world. Optimists believed that China would follow in the footsteps of South Korea, Singapore and others and become a functioning democracy that respected human rights. The Budapest Memorandum of 1994 was signed by Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, with the U.S., U.K. and Russia as guarantors of the borders of the former Soviet nations. That agreement, combined with previous agreements made after World War II, seemed to fix the borders of Europe, making thousands of years of border wars a thing of the past.

And then it all fell apart. Russia, under Vladimir Putin, again became an expansionist aggressor, beginning with its invasion of Georgia in 2008, followed by annexing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. China stopped much of its economic reform, retrenched political reform, and became much more aggressive toward Taiwan and its neighbors. The U.S. and the Western world were shocked by the events of 9/11 in 2001. It became clear that much of the Muslim world had no desire or intent to tolerate other cultures, let alone assimilate into them.

From the beginning of recorded history, groups of people had been fighting over territory. After WWII and with the creation of the United Nations, it was believed that international forums and courts could serve to adjudicate border disputes without countries resorting to war. Despite some successes, many wars over territory started anew, no matter how improbable it seemed. The U.K. and Argentina went to war over the lightly populated Falkland Islands in the far South Atlantic. France and Italy are still arguing about who owns the summits on the Mont Blanc.

Dozens of border disputes are still pending. Most of them are over tiny pieces of land or islands and are unlikely to explode into major conflict. But there are also disputes that could easily get large and ugly. India and Pakistan have fought several wars over Kashmir, and the dispute still has not been permanently settled. India and China still dispute ownership of a number of places along their border, which has resulted in limited conflict in recent decades.

Russia and Japan are still at an unsettled end of a WWII dispute over the ownership of several of the Kuril Islands. China continues to claim part of Mongolia.

A few countries still claim the entirety of other countries. Notably, the Palestinians claim all of Israel, the Chinese claim Taiwan, and the Serbs still claim Kosovo.

Disputes over territorial waters still exist, including several between the U.S. and Canada, Turkey and Greece, and Germany and Switzerland (the border of Lake Constance).

A new war may well erupt between Guyana and Venezuela. Many people have never heard of Guyana, which, until it received its independence in 1966, was known as British Guyana. It is on the northern coast of South America, between Venezuela, Suriname and Brazil. It is close in size to the U.K. but has a population of only about 800,000 people. It was poor until the discovery of huge amounts of crude oil (an estimated 11 billion barrels) in 2015. Now, it may have the fastest-growing economy in the world and has the fourth-highest per capita income in the Americas. Venezuela has claimed about two-thirds of the country since 1841. In 1899, an international tribunal ruled the land belonged to Britain — which obtained it from the Dutch by treaty in 1814.

Much of Guyana is almost uninhabited rainforest. Yet it contains large quantities of bauxite (aluminum ore), gold, manganese and uranium in addition to oil. Given its newfound riches, the country has become of much greater interest to its neighbors. Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro held a referendum in which the Venezuelans approved claims to 74% of Guyana.

For most of its history, Venezuela was a friend of the U.S. With the rise of the socialists in Venezuela, however, relations with the U.S. soured to the point where Washington imposed heavy sanctions. Guyana, having a tiny but English-speaking population, saw the U.S. as a possible protector, particularly after the discovery of oil. Most of the oil is offshore, so there can be legitimate disputes about where to draw the line between the two nations. Guyana is seeking support from other South American and Caribbean nations, but how this works out and whether a war can be avoided are big unknowns.

As the wars in Ukraine and Israel demonstrate, fights over which nations own what are still apparently a permanent part of our existence. The optimism about the future that most of us had in the late 1990s has been dashed by reality.

• Richard W. Rahn is chairman of the Institute for Global Economic Growth and MCon LLC.

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