Cordon sanitaire

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Cordon sanitaire (French pronunciation: ​[kɔʁdɔ̃ sanitɛʁ]) is a French phrase that, literally translated, means "sanitary cordon". It originally denoted a barrier implemented to stop the spread of disease, such as the Black Death.[1] The term has also often been used in English in a metaphorical sense to refer to attempts to prevent the spread of an ideology deemed unwanted or dangerous,[2] such as the containment policy adopted by George F. Kennan against the Soviet Union.

For disease[edit]

A cordon sanitaire is generally created around an area experiencing an epidemic of disease. Once the cordon is established, people from the infected area are no longer allowed to leave. In the most extreme form, the cordon is not lifted until the infection is extinguished, forcing everyone inside to either die or survive.[3] The tactic was used during the Black Death, for instance during the Great Northern War plague outbreak. The first actual use of the term cordon sanitaire was in 1821, when French troops were deployed to the border between France and Spain in the Pyrenees Mountains in order to prevent a deadly fever from spreading from Spain into France.[3]

Since the twentieth century, the tactic has been rarely used: prior to 2014, the last time it was used was in 1918, when the Polish-Russian border was closed to stop the spread of typhus.[3] A cordon sanitaire was more likely to be used as a plot device in fiction, such as in Albert Camus' The Plague. However, in August 2014, a cordon sanitaire was established around some of the most affected areas of the 2014 West Africa Ebola virus outbreak.[4]

In diplomacy[edit]

The seminal use of "cordon sanitaire" as a metaphor for ideological containment referred to "the system of alliances instituted by France in post-World War I Europe that stretched from Finland to the Balkans" and which "completely ringed Germany and sealed off Russia from Western Europe, thereby isolating the two politically 'diseased' nations of Europe."[5]

French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau is credited with coining the usage, when in March 1919 he urged the newly independent border states (also called limitrophe states) that had seceded from Russian Empire and Soviet Russia to form a defensive union and thus quarantine the spread of communism to Western Europe; he called such an alliance a cordon sanitaire. This is still probably the most famous use of the phrase, though it is sometimes used more generally to describe a set of buffer states that form a barrier against a larger, ideologically hostile state.

In politics[edit]

Beginning in the late 1980s, the term was introduced into the discourse on parliamentary politics by Belgian commentators. At that time, the far-right Flemish nationalist Vlaams Blok party began to make significant electoral gains. Because the Vlaams Blok was considered a racist group by many, the other Belgian political parties committed to exclude the party from any coalition government, even if that forced the formation of grand coalition governments between ideological rivals. Commentators dubbed this agreement Belgium's cordon sanitaire. In 2004, its successor party, Vlaams Belang changed its party platform to allow it to comply with the law. While no formal new agreement has been signed against it, it nevertheless remains uncertain whether any mainstream Belgian party will enter into coalition talks with Vlaams Belang in the near future. Several members of various Flemish parties have questioned the viability of the cordon sanitaire. Critics of the cordon sanitaire claim that it is also undemocratic.

With the electoral success of nationalist and extremist parties on the left and right in recent European history, the term has been transferred to agreements similar to the one struck in Belgium:


  1. ^ A history of England from the conclusion of the great war in 1815. 1890. 
  2. ^ [1], 1927
  3. ^ a b c McNeil, Donald G. "Using a Tactic Unseen in a Century, Countries Cordon Off Ebola-Racked Areas". New York Times. Retrieved 14 August 2014. 
  4. ^ Donald G. McNeil Jr. (August 13, 2014). "Using a Tactic Unseen in a Century, Countries Cordon Off Ebola-Racked Areas". The New York Times. 
  5. ^ Gilchrist, Stanley (1995) [1st. pub. 1982]. "Chapter 10: The Cordon Sanitaire - Is It Useful? Is It Practical?". In Moore, John Norton; Turner, Robert F. Readings on International Law from the Naval War College Review, 1978-1994. 68. Naval War College. pp. 131–145. 
  6. ^ "Criterios sobre actuación política general" [General Policy on Performance Criteria] (PDF) (in Spanish). Multimedia Capital. Retrieved 4 April 2015. 
  7. ^ "- Nulltoleranse mot Frp-samarbeid", Arbeiderpartiet[dead link]
  8. ^ "Guardian: Cameron: vote for anyone but BNP". The Guardian. London. 18 April 2006. Retrieved 26 March 2010. 
  9. ^ BBC News (3 November 2008). "UKIP rejects BNP electoral offer". Retrieved 19 November 2011. 
  10. ^ Traynor, Ian (9 July 2009). "UK diplomats shun BNP officials in Europe". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 23 October 2009. 

See also[edit]