Bordering on a New World

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On Jan. 25, President Donald Trump stated that, “Beginning today, the United States of America gets back control of its borders.” He signed an executive order to commence construction of the southern border wall, as well as the controversial immigration ban intended to stop travel from citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. A hallmark of his campaign was promising to bring jobs back within U.S. borders.

Contrary to what he thinks or expects, Trump will probably struggle to contain what comes in and out of the U.S. In the 21st century, borders and the nation-states they contain are increasingly weak in the face of new global trends, namely globalization and technological development, and the challenges that accompany these changes.

For decades, borders have served as an effective way for nation-states to define and assert their sovereignty—or contest someone else’s. And for centuries before, they were a way for monarchs and empires to carve up new colonies and to test the limits of their rivals. Since people have begun demarcating the limits of their territory, these designations—rivers, valleys, coastlines, and purposeful or arbitrary lines drawn on a map—have been contested.

As the might of empires and militaries has waxed and waned, borders have expanded, shrunk, and evaporated. The fate of billions within and without certain borders has been determined by how and where the divisions are drawn. Borders have taken shape through the multiple phases of history—imperialism, colonization, the world wars, and the post-WWII proliferation of states.

Today, there are certainly potential geopolitical flashpoints in parts of the world including the Korean Peninsula’s demilitarized zone, the Pakistan-India divide, and practically every part of Israel’s border that it shares with neighbors. In some cases there  are potentially larger fault lines, such as the collection of former Soviet Union members of Eastern Europe that share a winding, heavy militarized border with Russia. Here in the U.S., borders have been given renewed consideration, as the new administration has pledged to build a wall along the country’s southern border with Mexico in an effort to stem the purportedly large flow of illegal immigration and illicit smuggled goods.

Beyond the physical geographical lines, ravines, oceans, and mountain passes, though, there are trends taking place that transcend, puncture, or effortlessly fly across borders.


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First example: who and how the U.S. fights. Whereas waging war in the 20th century generally entailed land, air, and sea campaigns that mobilized millions of men, war in the 21st century has largely been fought against nimble, faceless, and stateless actors like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The Iraq War—which began with a predictable, quick, and decisive rout of the Hussein regime—became a protracted, unwinnable fight against Al Qaeda guerilla-esque cells, whose jihadist brethren, ISIS, quickly filled the vacuum of leadership that the country and nearby Syria were experiencing. The latter group was even able to carve out a caliphate with its own borders.  

Now, technological advances have let unmanned aerial vehicles doing the heavy lifting against jihadist insurgencies and unconventional enemies, across the borders of countries we are not at war with. UAVs—in conjunction with other types of U.S. aircraft—dropped 26,172 bombs in 2016. This outstanding amount of ammunition shows that for one, the Obama administration was much more hawkish than we were lead to believe. It also embodies the changing way of how we fight.

Conventional warfare is taking a back seat to this new way of fighting, much of which is conducted in and over countries we are not formally at war with. Commando raids are another way the U.S. military can achieve its goals. Two high-profile cases come to mind: the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, which is a sovereign ally, and the recent raid in Yemen.

I don’t wish to comment on the ethics or efficacy of these strategies, but to show that borderless warfighting against stateless enemies is becoming a type of conflict du jour in the 21st century.

Displaced refugees and migrants also pose a challenge to borders, as they have flowed en masse from their home countries to new states to avoid violence or poverty. Whether they are Hondurans fleeing to the U.S. to avoid the narco violence in San Pedro Sula, or Syrians risking everything to make the harrowing trek from the rubble of Aleppo to Europe, many will and have made it through overwhelmed borders. With potentially hundreds of millions more “climate refugees” —people at risk of forced displacement due to climate change—migrating in the next few decades, the flow of people burdening or penetrating borders will only increase.

Climate change is another global trend in which delineated borders will not make a difference. No matter how strong a state’s natural borders or constructed defenses are, the ramifications of climate change and cross-border pollution will not stop at the doorstep of a country. The issue transcends  man-made borders.

Many other cross-border flows don’t stop for customs. Moises Naim, writing in Foreign Policy, suggests “Wars of Globalization” that threaten borders, such as “the illegal international trade in drugs, arms, intellectual property, people, and money.” These illicit flows, enabled or created by globalization, “are now increasingly free of geographic constraints,” he argues.

These examples are only the tip of the iceberg. The explosion of internet technologies like blogging, instant messaging, and social media—bottom-up outlets for dissemination—has democratized the internet, to a certain extent, and allowed cross-border flows of information sharing to thicken, all while reducing state’s abilities to keep communication from coming in and out of their borders.

The West’s lurch to the right in recent elections might be a violent backlash to a fair perception that borders are too open or weak, but new leaders will quickly find the trends they are up against are irreversible and accelerating at a multiplying rate. An immigration ban intended to end terrorist attacks on U.S. soil is unlikely to end terrorism or stop terrorists. A state’s sovereignty will not stop a drone, nor will its borders halt an epidemic, a computer virus, smugglers, or massive flows of migrants. The issues of today don’t stop or start at our borders, and this is a reality that no campaign pledge or policy position will change.

Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Editor

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