The Persistence of Borders in a Globalized World

By Bruno Tertrais

World Politics Review, June 22, 2021

A new border wall stretches along the landscape near Sasabe, ArizonaA new border wall stretches along the landscape near Sasabe, Arizona, May 19, 2021 (AP photo by Ross D. Franklin).

Back in 1990, when the Soviet bloc was crumbling into new nations, Kenichi Ohmae, a Japanese organizational theorist and management consultant, had the audacity to suggest that humankind was on the cusp of a new “borderless world,” in a book of the same name. Ohmae’s goal was mainly to sketch out new ways for businesses to adapt and take advantage of a world that he argued would be increasingly globalized, where nation-states and the borders that help define them would become less and less relevant.

For more than two decades, the world seemed to be moving in the direction of Ohmae’s vision. States and entire regions sought to ease restrictions on the free movement of people and, to a much greater degree, goods.

More recently, however, the pendulum has begun to swing back in the other direction. Three successive challenges, in particular, have put borders to the test in the 21st century: terrorism, migration and pandemics. Each of these challenges has led countries to institute more stringent border controls, particularly those governed by nationalist and populist leaders who have long called for them.

At the same time, borders still hold appeal for governments of all stripes, including recently independent countries keen to defend their sovereignty, as well as well-established governments that seek to complete their construction of a modern state by asserting well-delineated and demarcated borders.

Though often thought of as features of geography, borders are inherently political and, because of their newfound prominence, increasingly politicized. Understanding them better is therefore key to understanding contemporary world affairs.

“If you don’t have borders, then you don’t have a country.” On the campaign trail and in office, former U.S. President Donald Trump often claimed that borders make a country. He was right—or at the very least, he was not entirely wrong. More precisely, one key component of statehood is a well-defined territory on which domestic sovereignty is exercised. This has been the case since 1648, when the Treaty of Westphalia created the modern international system.

While often a key component of statehood, however, a well-defined territory is not a prerequisite for being a state. Palestine, for example, has permanent observer status at the United Nations and is recognized by 139 countries as a state, even though its borders are undefined. Nor are borders a sufficient condition for statehood. Taiwan, Kosovo and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in Western Sahara have clear and widely recognized borders, but have gained limited recognition. The Moldovan district of Transnistria in Eastern Europe and the breakaway region of Somaliland in Southern Africa are in the same position, checking the boxes that are supposedly required for sovereignty, but still unrecognized.

The world is now finite. In 2020, there were 311 international land borders covering nearly 162,500 miles. Although some are ancient—Andorra, whose borders were drawn in 1278 and have remained unchanged since, holds the world record—most international borders are recent. Many of them date from the period between the late 19th and early 20th century, but 10 percent of today’s borders were added in the decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The most recent one, created in 2011, separates Sudan from the world’s newest country, South Sudan.

Three successive challenges, in particular, have put borders to the test in the 21st century: terrorism, migration and pandemics.

Today, almost all of the Earth’s land is now divided among states or quasi-states. There are no more terra nulli—meaning lands belonging to no one (“no man’s lands”)—or lands left ungoverned, with very few exceptions, such as the small areas of Bir Tawil and Hala’ib, which are disputed between Egypt and Sudan, for the former category, and Western Sahara for the latter. Even those areas considered “ungoverned spaces” formally fall within the jurisdiction of one government or another, whether or not it actually governs there; and when the state is absent, nonstate groups tend to fill the gaps.

One whole continent, however, has so far escaped the appetite of states: Antarctica. There are many claims on it—the “slices” on the continent’s map—but a 1961 treaty deemed those divisions strictly provisional.

Land borders are remarkably resilient. In the past, borders were mostly created by wars and empires. Lord Curzon of Kedleston, a British diplomat, drew nearly 6,000 miles of borders by himself in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, most of these lines are remarkably stable. Since 1945, only 30 percent of territorial wars have led to a redefinition of borders. Annexations still occurred in the 1960s and 1970s—see the cases of Sikkim, East Timor, Western Sahara and the Golan Heights—but land grabs are now exceedingly rare. When Argentina and Iraq tried them, in 1982 and 1990 respectively, they were met with military force.

The forced erasure of borders is also exceedingly rare. The Islamic State attempted to make the Iraq-Syria border literally disappear in 2014, on the grounds that it was a colonial creation based on the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. A multinational military coalition quickly formed to make sure it didn’t succeed. The forced incorporation of Crimea into Russian territory in that same year—another border erasure—was a significant exception to the rule.

There have also been a few minor territorial swaps—in 2016, for example, when Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged small parts of their territories, and in 2015, when India and Bangladesh resolved a centuries-old dispute involving enclaves and even enclaves within enclaves by exchanging the territories involved. And there have been instances in which a country has given away or sold a part of its territory, as in 2017, when Egypt ceded the Tiran Straits’ islands to Saudi Arabia.

But generally speaking, the world operates under what lawyers call the uti possidetis principle, which suggests that, in case of a dispute, it is generally preferable that the status quo prevail. The rule dates back to the 19th century, but has been increasingly applied since 1945, and especially since 1986, when the International Court of Justice invoked it in a ruling on the frontier between Burkina Faso and Mali. As a result, almost no entirely new international borderlines have come into being. When they have, they almost always use existing internal borders, like regional or provincial borders within a state being divided, even if doing so rarely satisfies both parties.

Unaccompanied minors who crossed into Spain at Ceuta.
Unaccompanied minors who crossed the Morocco-Spain border gather for COVID-19 tests, May 19, 2021 (AP photo by Bernat Armangue).

Border disputes are the symptom, not the disease. There are many, many border disputes. In fact, very few dyads of countries do not have any. The vast majority are symbolic or peaceful, such as Denmark and Canada’s “dispute” over the small Hans Island, or France and Italy’s on the location of the Mont Blanc.

Others involve more deeply held claims, and, sadly, most states do not resort to international arbitration to resolve them. The ICJ has handled only a few dozen cases of border disputes since it was established in 1945. Governments can also call upon the Permanent Court of Arbitration or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to resolve disputes over maritime territories and rights, but this also happens rarely. But though rare, the decisions of these institutions set legal precedents, and when states accept them, the likelihood of going to war over a border dispute becomes marginal.

Interestingly, few of the conflicts that do occur are true “border wars,” in which the territory immediately adjacent to the borderline is the true stake of the conflict. When true border wars occur, it is usually when the land on the border is resource-rich, or when a mountain ridge or strategically positioned island sits atop the divide, offering a potential military advantage. In contrast, most of the border disputes today are not conflicts over the possession of resources, but symptoms of identity-based, domestic battles—or they are instrumentalized to that effect. To avoid being embroiled in such controversies, Google Earth generally provides its local consumers with a version of its map with borders that are judged to be accurate and preferable by the government of the country in which they reside.

Identity-based border disputes are difficult to resolve. The border disputes that do relate to questions of identity and occupation are truly existential in nature and much harder to resolve.

This is clear in the Eastern Mediterranean, for instance, where Cyprus remains divided between the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the northern third of the island. The latter, which was established after a Turkish invasion of the island in 1974 that Ankara justified as an effort to prevent Greece from annexing the island, is only recognized by Turkey. This border dispute, which pits Cyprus’ Greek and Turkish communities against each other, is also embedded in the long-standing rivalry between Greece and Turkey, which involves its own set of maritime border disputes in the Aegean Sea and in the Eastern Mediterranean, as we’ll see later.

Meanwhile, in the Caucasus, Armenia and Azerbaijan, whose inhabitants have a long history of wars and massacres, have yet to agree on their mutual borders 20 long years after both gained independence following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The recent war over Nagorno-Karabakh—in which Azerbaijan militarily reclaimed sovereignty over a breakaway, ethnic-Armenian region—seems to have resolved the question of control over the territory, but has yet to definitively address the question of borders, which have yet to be delimited and remain a potential flashpoint, as seen by recent skirmishes between the two sides.

Most of the border disputes today are not conflicts over the possession of resources, but symptoms of identity-based, domestic battles—or they are instrumentalized to that effect.

Israel’s borders, too, remain contentious, with its only internationally recognized one being with Egypt. The country’s borders with Lebanon and Syria remain disputed, and its 1994 peace treaty with Jordan only recognizes an “administrative boundary” between Jordan and the West Bank. The so-called 1967 border between Israel and the West Bank only reflects the 1949 armistice agreement that ended the fighting with Arab countries that followed Israel’s declaration of independence, and the security barrier Israel built starting in the 2000s only partly follows its delineation.

In Asia, unrecognized major borders also reflect the absence of peace treaties between neighbors. This is the case on the Korean Peninsula, of course, where the Demilitarized Zone serves as the de facto buffer between North and South Korea, which are still legally at war. In South Asia, some lingering disputes are a legacy of colonialism, as colonizers did not leave precise maps behind them. India and Pakistan continue to use the Line of Control as a provisional border in the contested Kashmir region—not to be confused with the Line of Actual Control that similarly divides India and China in the Himalayas. Beijing also challenges India’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh, a region in India’s northeast to the east of Bhutan, while India, in turn, does not acknowledge China’s sovereignty over Aksai Chin, a desert territory that Beijing considers part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Even these border problems are more symptom than disease, but because they are fueled by existential divides, they can end up being deadly.

“Artificial” borders are just as legitimate—and peaceful—as “natural” ones. Natural borders account for about 55 percent of total borders in the world, with 30 percent of all borders winding through the middle of a river or lake, and 25 percent following the peaks of mountains and the depths of valleys. In contrast, a quarter of artificial borders are straight lines, like many of those in North America and Africa. Others roughly follow meridians or parallels, like those dividing Egypt and Sudan, Alaska and Canada, and North Korea and South Korea.

Perhaps counterintuitively, natural borders are not easy to draw. Where do you mark the line on a mountain range: at the highest peaks or along the watershed? Where do you draw it on a river: in the middle or at its deepest points? What happens if the riverbed shifts over time, as with the Rio Grande and the Danube? Who takes the islands in a body of water? And what do you do when there are no obvious landmarks on which to base a border, as is the case in North America, the former Soviet Union and the Arabian Peninsula?

These are not easy questions to answer.

India-Bangladesh border.
An Indian soldier locks a door on the India-Bangladesh border at Thakuranbari village, Sept. 2, 2016 (AP photo by Anupam Nath).

For the same reason, the commonly held belief that “natural” borders are more legitimate, and thereby more peaceful, than so-called “artificial” ones is mistaken. To the contrary, natural borders can and often are disputed. The Rhine, whose southern course now defines Germany’s borders with France and Switzerland, was contested for centuries. And though some colonial or post-colonial borders are the subject of controversy, they are not always disputed, and were not always drawn without respect for history or geography.

In fact, there is no such thing as a true “natural border.” All borders are the product of human activity and choices.

Maritime borders are the next flashpoint. The future of borders—and border disputes—is at sea. While the world’s land borders have been negotiated, renegotiated and largely defined, only 180 maritime borders have been delineated, out of a total of nearly 450 that are needed. Now, nationalism and the quest for resources—from fish to oil and gas—are fueling some of the hottest border disputes, and many of them are at sea.

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, which was signed in 1982 and entered into force in 1994, in theory sets forth rules for how to draw these borders. But besides the fact that some countries, like Turkey, have yet to join it, its rules are complex, and individual states have adopted varied interpretations of them.

UNCLOS distinguishes between three types of territories at sea: territorial waters, which extend 12 nautical miles from the coast, with a right of “innocent passage” for foreign ships; a contiguous police zone, which extends an additional 12 miles out from that; and an Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ, up to 200 nautical miles from a coastline. Among the issues fostering disputes are questions about how to delineate borders when territories are too close to one another to allow for full territorial waters or EEZs; who owns islands more than 12 nautical miles away from coastlines; and how far states can claim an extension of rights over the continental shelf beyond the EEZ. UNCLOS and tribunals like the Permanent Court of Arbitration provide rules and precedents for how to resolve these problems, but there are no easy fixes for most bilateral disputes, especially when countries do not want to resort to international arbitration.

In Asia, many of the hottest border disputes are at sea, and many are long-standing ones. Possession of the Kuril Islands, a volcanic archipelago that hems in the Sea of Okhotsk in the North Pacific, has been disputed between Tokyo and Moscow since 1945. Disputes over the Senkaku Islands, Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea that are also claimed by China and Taiwan, and the Dokdo Islands, South Korean-controlled but also claimed by Japan, have also recently been rekindled.

As divisive as borders can be, both physically and politically, they do manage to have one universal effect: They leave almost no one indifferent.

The conflict over the South China Sea, one of the most important sea lanes in the world, may be considered the mother lode of all maritime disputes: No less than seven countries have claims there, while Beijing claims it all. In a symbolic 2016 case, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that the Scarborough Shoal belongs to the Philippines, but China has refused to abide by that decision.

The previously mentioned Greek-Turkish dispute over the Eastern Mediterranean has also become a major flashpoint. Greece demands a strict implementation of UNCLOS, which would generate large exclusive economic zones for its islands—and the gas resources in the seabeds surrounding them—at the expense of Turkey, which is not a signatory to UNCLOS in part for this reason. To that effect, in 2019, Turkey signed a maritime EEZ delimitation agreement with Libya that negated the Greek claims. Athens then countered that move by negotiating its own overlapping EEZ delimitation agreement with Egypt the next year. Meanwhile, Ankara has argued that the unrecognized government in Northern Cyprus should have its own EEZ. And farther east, Israel and Lebanon have also failed to agree on their maritime border, which would also divide a resource-rich area.

Walls are proliferating, but remain a minority. Is the world being walled off? It can seem that way, given the construction of new barriers in Central Europe, the completion of the longest “border wall” between India and Bangladesh, and Trump’s project of building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. The numbers bear out the impression that walls are proliferating. There were only about 15 border walls in 1989; there are now more than 70. But most of these—about 50—are really more like low barriers than true “walls.” Trump’s promised wall, for instance, is almost non-existent. His administration reinforced preexisting barriers over a few hundred miles during his mandate, while only building new ones along about 12 miles.

In any case, walls represent a small minority of international land borders, covering only about 10 percent of the total miles that borders span. The longest is between India and Bangladesh, which covers nearly 1,900 miles of the 2,545-mile border. States also increasingly resort to “smart borders” that incorporate digital surveillance technologies, like drones, thermal imaging and facial recognition.

Politicians have mostly used the threats—real and perceived—of terrorism, trafficking and migration to justify building these walls, but some governments, and their citizens, also seem to appreciate the clear definition of borders that physical barriers provide. In certain instances, walls create facts on the ground and delineate a de facto international border, as is the case on the Korean Peninsula, in the Levant and in Western Sahara.

Importantly, however, building a wall does not mean closing a border, but rather directing the crossing of goods and people to specific points of passage. There are some permanently closed borders—like the ones that divide Morocco from Algeria and Israel from Lebanon—but these are few and far between. And unlike the famous Berlin Wall, the vast majority are meant to prevent entry, not exit.

As divisive as borders can be, both physically and politically, they do manage to have one universal effect: They leave almost no one indifferent. While some grassroots movements seek to abolish them or change the way the world thinks about them, the fact is that most of the world sees them as either necessary or indispensable. Perhaps in the future, the kind of utopian, borderless globalization that Ohmae predicted will become fashionable again. But for now, it is that vision, rather than borders themselves, that has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Bruno Tertrais is the deputy director of the Paris-based Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique (Foundation for Strategic Research). He was a member of the 2007 and 2012 presidential commissions on the White Paper on Defense and National Security.

Source: World Press Review