Saturday, September 10, 2005

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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.
After my first read of this, I'm struck by the notion that the permeability of borders can be taken as a threat to America or a benefit. In the first case, it is a threat if we don't recognize it and react to it; in the second, it only becomes a benefit if we recognize it and act to make it a benefit -- or something to that effect.

Your final paragraph aligns pretty well with the final paragraph of my latest entry at P.C.

It occurs to me that a reestablishment of our international borders as traditional-type borders -- forgetting for now whether we should -- would first require that we eliminate the social borders within our society. Particularly, this has implications for the WoT and possibly for future 5GW.
Hi Curtis,

Overwhelmingly, globalization and more permeable borders have brought benefits to the United States. The danger lies I think in a mentality that simultaneously accepts these benefits yet anachronistically assumes that borders continue to provide the security and separation they once did.

They don't, people have become highly mobile and borders are simply filters where the density of the netting varies.
Excellent writing as always, I wonder if this reality will not be painfully reinforced on the psyche of Americans by a bird flu epidemic or some other medical disaster in the coming months. In the aftermath, Americans will have to choose between a vibrant America that takes sensible precautions to defend her citizens and guests (i.e. greater survelliance on shipping containers, improved procedures and prepartion for outbreaks like SARS/bird flu) or a fortress America that gives in to its worst impulses (and elects the demagogue politicans on the right and left)and becomes a shadow of itself within a few years.
Sorry, but I think this post is way off the mark. Sovereign borders are what the "soverign" makes of them. Europe and the U.S. have the borders that they desire. The U.S. could relatively easily control the U.S.-Mexican border if it so chose. You mentioned the extreme example of the Koreas. Yes, any border could be turned into that if needed. Look at the borders of say Turkey; much closer to a "traditional" controlled border.
For the most part, borders are open since the world is, relatively speaking, at peace.

An excellent piece.

As we move to a post-Modern (that is, medieval) future, ideas like borders and sovereignty blur into meaninglessness. Just as the the 20th century was a special case, divorsed from universal norms by a bloddy 80-year global civil war, the entirety of modern international politics looks more like an exception than the rule.
Hi Eddie, Barnabus and Dan,

Thank you much. I tend to be more self-critical of my writing these days, I re-wrote several sections multiple times so its nice to get that kind of feedback.

Back to the future is a good way of describing what Dan suggests. We forget but in even the late 19th century you could cross borders at will, in most instances without documentation. Visas, passports, tightened borders, came much later as national powers grew stronger. The U.S. would react very poorly to a pandemic -even moreso a biological terror attack - because we are not well prepared for such a crisis.

One thing I wish I had added to the post - perhaps this will address Barnabus' objection or perhaps not - is that it is not just our borders that have changed. Volume of border traffic is at an all-time high and the speed of that traffic has accelerated, esp. for information and financial flows.

In the 19th century most of humanity lived and died within ten miles of their home ( usually a village). In the 20th century it was 30 miles. Today, half of humanity is an urbanized population to whom crossing great distances is imaginable and often times affordable.

I'm also going to have to give more thought to Curtis' question of internal societal borders....
Hindu Kush does not actually translate as the "Killer of Hindus" or rather it is unclear. Early attested etymologies direct one's attention to "Peaks" rather than killers.

Also of note, it would be more accurate to translate (if one opts for the 'slaughter' etymology) Hindu as "Indians" as the concept of "Hindu" religion versus the application of the name as a purely geographical meaning is post the name.
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.
Mark: Right on. National borders are transient and transitory. Just look at history. A friend who is a Finnish journalist and also an academic, told me in spring 1992 that "borders are meant to be changed." He was right then and his observation is still valid.
Well, Zenpundit readers may not be legion but they are certainly smart:


Most of the popular transliterations of Hindu Kush I have seen used " Killer" though one, a sort of Indian nationalistic source, did use " Slaughter". I'm seeing a friend who does linguistics at of U. of C. in a couple of weeks and I'll see what his two cents are on the subject.


Don't worry. No harm done.

Corporations are supposed to be amoral profit maximizing agents but not *immoral* ones. As was the case with Enron where the management of the corporation went on a self-aggrandizing and illegal looting spree at the expense of employees and shareholders, a positive economic entity can quickly turn destructive/zero sum one when leaders foster an unethical, rule-breaking, culture.

Sadly, I've seen this evil effect firsthand in academia, unions and government as well is in corporations so I think this is a phenomena that plagues any complex human system of a certain size without regard to whether we have a globally connected or just a nationally connected system.

Phil -

Exceptional rebuttal ! I'm going to feature your comments in a post since they do a good job of presenting another side to the question.


I think your Finnish friend is correct but job of statesmen is to decide if the costs involved in such a change are worth the price and act accordingly.

Aside from specific national self-interest allowing recognized borders to change in general potentially introduces an enormous amount of instability into the international system. Especially, forcible change by invasion or secession. The bias of existing states collectively at least is to preserve the status quo, no matter how nonsensical or problematic or nominal an existing border might be in reality.

As you probably have guessed, I have a pretty high tolerance for breaking the china when making foreign policy but even I would prefer that American policy makers try to look down the road a bit further when the next Yugoslavia starts to fall apart.
Excellent post, Mark.

We need to reconceptualize the function and regulation of borders, just as we need to reconceptualize what passes for security via TSA (I've just been travelint again) and disaster preparedness.

The difficulty you allude to at the end of your post is that far too many Americans are indeed living in 1955. It's too late for them to get used to traveling in a Europe marked by the old borders and then be amazed by the Schengen changes. It's too late for them to be impressed by the extreme difficulty of getting into the Soviet Union changing into European-style entrance procedures.

It would be nice if they just once went outside the country, though, or actually looked at a border away from the formal crossings. Signs in southern Estonia pleading with people not to cross to Latvia except by the official crossings. Forest the rest of the way, with roads blocked by concrete barriers, but tell me nobody goes through the woods to visit their neighbors. The borders with Russia are the same. Or between Mexico or Canada and the US. Not to mention what must be the situation between Iraq and Syria.

Israel is doing what is necessary to totally secure a border. Expensive and not pretty. It's simply not going to happen elsewhere.

We need to consider what the real threats are; there are experts who have considered what kinds of terrorist activity might really occur or what kinds of missiles might really fly. We've got to get away from the fantasies that prop up the ideologies or maybe spring from them.

I can hope, can't I?

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