THE BORDERS OF OUR IMAGINATION
As I've been reading articles and books that touch on globalization, war, illegal immigration, international energy markets and other current affairs, it occurred to me that our commonly held concept of borders no longer match reality. The invisible and imaginary lines that criss-cross maps, over which so much blood and treasure have been shed, are functioning less and less as we would expect. Even in Europe, borders have not yet been reduced to polite fictions but they are a far more multifaceted and less impermeable phenomena today than a generation ago.
If you consider a border to be a barrier of an absolute sovereign power fencing out the rest of the world, then you need to look increasingly hard to find one. The lavishly fortified DMZ
at the 38th parallel that divides capitalist South Korea from its ghoulish communist twin in the North remains a pristine example of the traditional " do not cross this line " model of a border. Ancient in pedigree, this kind of border was exemplified by China's Great Wall
and East Germany's lesser imitation that was designed not to keep barbarians out but to allow the barbarians to keep people in. France bet all their chips as a great power on the Maginot line
- and lost. Unrivaled in military power by any of its neighbors yet plagued by terrorism, Israel is staking its security on a " fence"
and selective, strategic, withdrawals from the territories to achieve unilateral separation from the Palestinians.
There are other conceptions of borders, notably the geographic. Great mother India went no further north than the peaks of the Hindu Kush
- literally, the " Killer of the Hindus". Under the Bourbons and then Bonaparte, France sought to establish " her natural frontiers" in Europe. America's 19th century Manifest Destiny
proclaimed an America bounded only by the Atlantic and the Pacific - " from sea to shining sea "- and had James K. Polk
gotten his way, Mexico City would be the largest metropolis in the United States today. Yet when Manifest Destiny was an accomplished fact, Frederick Jackson Turner lamented the effect that the closing of the frontier would have on the American character
Cultural conceptions of borders seem to naturally spur expansionist and revolutionary dreams, being rooted in idealized abstractions that usually far exceed the geographic or political reach of the dreamer. " The Greater German Reich" for the German Volk, " Greater Serbia for Milosevic's Bosnian Serbs, Russian nationalists who covet the annexation of Ukraine and Islamists who see an emergent Caliphate in the ummah. All of these see or saw international borders not as something fixed or inviolable but as a transient and deeply offensive status quo to be destroyed so that their favored could take its place in the Sun. Our enemies are of this very ilk. They reside safe in Waziristan
, secure in the knowledge that the " border" they do not recognize at all, one that neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan controls - or dares to - holds us back as surely as if the Durand line were the Berlin Wall.
Borders no longer denote separate entities but merely the nominal reach of one government's laws. Recall Eisenhower's " Open skies " proposal
to the Soviet Union ?" Such an idea seems as quaint today as horse-drawn buggy when every square inch of the earth can be seen and recorded by spy satellites
sensitive enough to read the color of your eyes from space. Nations seeking to make their doings opaque must dig deep tunnels underground and eschew transmitting sensitive information
via modern communications
unless it is shielded by the most advanced and recent encryption techniques or " hidden in plain sight" in the enormous volume of electronic " noise". Nations have very little sovereignty over their own information these days and the satellite dishes that spring up on rooftops in Teheran and Shanghai mock the capabilities of would-be censors.
The United States itself is an example of the paradoxical state of borders. After 9/11 the USG erected unprecedented bureaucratic obstacles to acquiring a VISA, yet 10 million illegal aliens reside in America and long borders with Mexico and Canada, excepting selected choke points, remain essentially wide open. We have enacted an immigration and border control policy that gives us the worst of both worlds - we discourage superbright Chinese and Indian graduate students from immigrating here by annoying them pointlessly while letting anybody with the hard cash to pay Mexican gangsters to come in over the Rio Grande.
Economically and technologically, the United States is one of the most globalized and deeply "connected" nations on earth yet at the same time much of our population is disconnected culturally from the rest of the world. We know little of the history of others and still less of their languages - even the languages of our enemies. I am not speaking just of the public schools or our universities, which have generally let linguistics departments wither on the vine in the past decade, but also about our defense and intelligence agencies ! Four years after 9/11 Pashto, Urdu and Farsi are still not being prioritized by the Pentagon. Mastery of Arabic lags far behind the conceivable demand - years behind. Even when faced with evidence of significant threat and obvious need, the cultural impermeability of our society remains dangerously high as we sit in ignorance and denial, assuming our prodigious strengths will always overcome the gaps in our knowledge.
We Americans need to wake up to the nature of the interconnectedness of the globalized world and stop thinking like this was 1955. Borders are no longer walls today. They are revolving doors.