Sunday, September 11, 2005

Reader Phil takes issue with Zenpundit on the nature of borders and offers some incisive caveats worth considering further:

"It is often said that the borders drawn by European imperialists are "artificial" borders. But the reality is that ALL borders are artificial.

These borders are real nonetheless. There is a reason that millions of Mexicans flee to the US. On this side of the border there is something different going on than on the other side. And that something different is so significant, so pregnant with opportunity that millions of people are willing to legally and illegally leave behind all they have known to take advantage of those opportunities. That border is very real.

The fact that there is greater movement of information, ideas, people, products, diseases, etc., doesn't mean that borders are irrelevant. The movement across borders is not random. There are patterns to these movements and these patterns are dependent upon the particular conditions created within borders. Millions of Mexicans are moving to the US; millions of Americans are not moving to Mexico. There is a reason for that.

There are many people who fantasize about a world with no borders. But as long as there are significantly different conditions and opportunities on one side of a border rather than another, we will find larger numbers of people moving one way rather than another. And this will create conflict because those who are the recipients will be reluctant to allow unlimited entry across their border and you will then have enforced borders.

The end of history has not come, therefore there will continue to be conflicts between different factions and they will ultimately determine the borders based upon the territory that they can claim and defend regardless of whether the UN and various nations demand that the borders as they exist today are sacrosanct and must have a government."

I don't really disagree with Phil's reasoning here since it is soundly rooted in economics as well as human nature. My qualification is that while all borders are real/artificial some borders are more one than the other; in the case of most African countries, the lines have been drawn in such a way as to impede the formation of stable systems. In other words, if we began from scratch in Africa and tried to draw a map where countries would end up with relatively homogenous cultural majorities on the European nation-state model, the outcome would be totally unrecognizable - at least south of Egypt and Algeria.
Of course, if we began from scratch and tried to draw borders based on cultural homogeneity, a map of North America would be pretty unrecognizable too. Seattle has far more in common with Vancouver than with most of the places on its side of the border. Ditto North Dakota and Saskatchewan.

Living next to the 49th parallel, surely one of the world's most geographically absurd borders, it becomes clear that borders are both crucial and ridiculous. Fortunately, we zen guys don't see the contradiction there, right?
Hi urbanist,

"Fortunately, we zen guys don't see the contradiction there, right?"

Or if we see it, we embrace it.

Checked out your blog. Nice. You'd like the blog Regions of Mind too, I believe, from your interests.

I once would have said that logical contradictions do not exist and they simply represented a knowledge gap. Within a single domain with well-established rule-sets ( say classical physics) that remains basically true.

Life however isn't lived like that though. It's more like multidimensional chess with a multiplicity of boards, some of which intersect, others that exist incompletely at odd angles, most of which have their own distinct rules. We tend to be on many of these boards at once and are always moving, rarely able to see the game in its entirety, except for rare flashes of deep insight.

Contradictions, naturally do exist. We can use them to pause and try and see toward a wider horizon.
It strikes me that the key issue you have touched on but perhaps not well put into words is the degree to which the borders (human constructs all) are thought of as "natural" and "real" by those concerned.

Nothing is 100 percent, however, in general the difference between (most) European borders and (most) African borders is the sense on the part of all concerned in the first that the borders are either natural or at the very least, legitimate, made by "us." Perhaps imperfect, but made by "us." Myth to be sure, but perception is often reality.

Contra to that, African borders by the means they were formed are often, if not always, perceived as 'fake,' illegitimate and unreal - and above all, "imposed" and not made "by us." (i.e. most of those concerned).

A deep psychological difference.

In my experience, the nations in Africa that have the most stable identity is where borders / national space correspond in some rough way to political spaces that were constructed by locals (in a wide sense). The North African states more or less roughly correspond, for example, to ancient historical entities, Senegal and Mali in West Africa correspond (rather more) roughly to historical entities. No accident they are more socially stable.

Thus, the key issue is not that borders are artificial, but how their "reality" is perceived by the actors (and I do not refer to control or state centered issues) which are the population.
Good point Col.

If North Africa were less stable in this respect you could almost draw a dual geographic-political legitimacy continuum line for borders.

The northwest of Europe would represent an end point of maximum legitimacy/stability/realiy then illegitimacy and artificiality would begin creeping in with the Balkans, Transcaucasia and the Levant until in south central Africa you reach the end point of maximum artificiality/instability/illegitimacy in the Congo basin region.

Not sure how North Africa rates vs. the Balkans. Libya claimed Northern Chad at one time, Morocco of course holds the western Sahara, south Sudan would secede if that was possible or practical. Eritrea did secede from Ethiopia. Borders of Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia etc. against one another seem to be very stable, as far as I am aware.
"the key issue is not that borders are artificial, but how their "reality" is perceived by the actors"

Absolutely right. As long as there are factions or actors who do not accept the borders in their region to be real they will seek to establish borders more to their liking. But for the First World nations who desire stability they will seek to maintain the existing borders regardless of the opinions of the people who actually live there and endure the consequences of those decisions.

So how do we deal with a situation such as the one in the former Zaire where the African World War has been waging for several years now? Is there really a country there? Do we insist on the maintenance of the old borders regardless of the realities on the ground? Or do we stand aside and let the various factions just fight it out settling border issues amongst themselves resulting in millions of deaths? That's how borders have been established for thousands of years, why would we believe that process is going to come to an end?

"if we began from scratch and tried to draw borders based on cultural homogeneity..."

Why cultural homogeneity? Why not language, race, religion, ethnicity, or some other trait? Why is homogeneity the ideal?
Borders ? Isn't that a bookstore? Seriously, they exist for various reasons, but our borders are as leaky as a levee in New Orleans! Historically some borders make very little sense too and they are forever being ignored and breached.
Well first to Mark:

In regards to North Africa, as I said, by happy coincidence (and it was partly chance, partly greater respect for the native states, partly stronger native states relative to the Euro powers), the colonially defined borders more or less correspond to "perceived reality" on the ground.

Libya is a bit of an exception as it is something of a geographic hole - without oil it would be effectively Mauretania, a useless wasteland between other places. At the same time most of Libyan territory roughly corresponds to the Arabo-Berber Sannussiyah Sufi Brotherhood/Imamate.

For all the North African states the Saharan zones are somewhat sketchy, as no one historically bothered to control these areas before the Mad French decided that they needed to in order to keep the English from doing so (although the English sensibly showed little actual interest in doing so).

Regardless, My Friend Muammar's claim over Chad had zero to do with any deep feelings on Libya's part and a lot to do with Muammar's own personal quest to piss away Libyan wealth in every nuttier schemes. Non-issue really.

Regarding Western Sahara, that's a funny call as oddly the tribes of the Western Sahara region historically actually did give a vague and utterly theoretical fealty to the Sultan of Morocco (due to long historical ties); in fact when the Spanish started asserting control (why the Spanish were so stupid to take over then worthless desert is another story) they appealed to the Sultan (who had his hands full with the French and the Spanish himself).

The post colonial spat to my mind is quite modern and more tied in with a certian desire among some of the elite tribes to have their own playbox more than a real identity in contradistinction to Morocco (although they do speak a highly divergent creolised Arabic dialect). It's a good thing they don't have weapons, as the State would make zero sense. In the end, Morocco is slowly absorbing the territory and I think in a few decades will have done so.

Sudan is not typically considered in the North African framework (actually it is rarely considered at all come to think of it), but clearly that's an example of colonial amalgam that doesn't work and doesn't correspond well to the collective populations perceptions of "legitimate" or "natural" borders.

Regardless, it strikes me the final lesson is that the most stable state borders and roughly speaking most stable state will emerge in cases where there is reasonable congruence with "locals" perception of legitimate. That may be based on a whole bunch of different things (and frankly may not be easy to rationally construct); regardless as the commentator above noted, one is not really getting "stability" by keeping a state like Zaire/Congo together. At the same time I shouldn't think one should just say borders have no meaning. It all depends.
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