In the age of globalisation, the Internet and transnational structures, national borders seem to have increasingly become a relic of a bygone era. Nevertheless, conflict over territorial sovereignty – be it the Crimea or the West Bank – demonstrate yet again that the control over territory, even in the new millennium, is of paramount importance for modern states. Now in 2017, we seem further away from a world without borders than many had hoped for even a short time ago.
Asia in particular seems to be a continent facing the greatest number of territorial conflicts in this new century. Since the re-emergence of China as a world power, ancient and modern territorial disputes are smouldering on many of the land and sea borders of a country that boasts the most neighbours worldwide than any other. Indeed, even in the frozen wastes of the Antarctic beyond human civilisation, the race for spheres of influence has begun in the hunt for mineral resources: in 2007, Russia planted a flag on the seabed at the North Pole 4,261 metres below the polar ice.
States have also even drawn borders in the Internet. This digital medium has been subverting national borders ever since the 1990s and seems to have shrunk the world. But China – having erected a Great Firewall for the purpose of supressing critical voices – is not alone in bucking this trend. The Internet has also apparently made surveillance across borders a reality. And the revelations of the whistle blower, Edward Snowden, have prompted politicians in Europe to campaign for a World Wide Web parcelled off into separate sections and thus no longer worthy of its name. Even the digital world is being fenced off.
The history of borders
Borders are by no means a modern phenomenon. Even the tribes of primeval nomadic hunter gatherers moved around in relatively stable territories and cultivated familial ties and alliances with neighbouring groups – even if their ideas about ownership and access to land as well as recourse to resources differed widely.
The domestication of plants and animals during the Neolithic period also ushered in ideas about the political organisation of territory. Control of territory was now necessary in order to farm the land and keep livestock. City states, empires and nomadic realms in the classical period were based upon different forms of the territorial exercise of power, but all three types of government were informed by ideas about a sphere or place of power and authority.
However, the control of people tended to be the predominant concern as opposed to the control of territory. The availability of labour was key to producing agricultural surpluses, which, in turn, underpinned the power of the respective ruling elite. The primacy of control over people also explains why the majority of states during the classical period were satisfied to operate with only vague territorial transitional areas instead of clearly delineated national borders. Even border fortifications, such as the imperial Great Wall of China or Hadrian's Wall in an outpost of the Roman Empire on the British Isles were more the demarcations of a transitional zone rather than a clearly defined external border.
Even during the Middle Ages in Europe, territorial sovereignty likewise played a subordinate role. As a decentralised system of political organisation, feudalism was predicated upon personal relationships between lords and vassals, not upon clearly defined possession of territory. Although vassals were granted the right to use land and benefit from what it could yield in return for their allegiance to their lords, the areas ruled by these masters weren't coherently organised territories as such; who owned which area was based on a complex network of personal relationships.
But the patchwork nature of these territories proved to be increasingly inefficient in the administration of economic and political control. The agricultural upheavals during the late Middle Ages challenged the feudal order of the church and princes and gave rise to new forms of government, such as the Hanseatic League, the Italian City States and the sovereign Kingdom of France.
The most trenchant caesura, however, was the Westphalia Peace of 1648. It enshrined the design of the modern nation state, which was based upon a totally new concept of political and territorial order. According to the terms of this treaty, states had exclusive sovereign rights about specific, clearly defined territories and were at liberty to operate autonomously within them. The principle of non-intervention forbade other states from interfering in the political internal affairs of another state. Moreover, states alone had the right to diplomacy and the waging of war. The principle of sovereignty and centralisation of state power presupposed the existence of precise territorial borders. Progress in the fields of cartography and surveying enabled the delineation of increasingly precise borders in Europe and beyond. But according to which criteria should borders be drawn? In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, natural boundaries such as rivers and mountains gradually established themselves as seemingly the ideal type of border. The most notable example is the Rhine as France's "natural" eastern border.
Meanwhile during the nineteenth century, the rise of nationalism changed ideas about the shape of political borders. The state, as opposed to the authority of a sole monarch, was now supposed to embody the sovereignty of a nation with clearly demarcated borders. The Europe of the nineteenth century – the "Spring of Nations" – was a world dominated by national movements in which many still sought the shape of their nation whereas others had already found theirs.
A prominent example for this will to find a model is the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership: the conflation of several small states into a nation state was predicated upon a cultural and linguistic nationalism, not as in the case of the French and the Swiss upon state nationalism (according to which every citizen belonged to the nation irrespective of his native tongue or culture). Many Germans considered the unification of every German speaker within one territory as a "natural" corollary of this quest.
However, the idea of the nation state was not fully realised until the twentieth century. At the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, the American President Woodrow Wilson vaguely demanded the self-determination of peoples with national borders according to "clearly recognisable national lines". The consequences for the political map of Europe – to the advantage of France and great Britain – were far-reaching: multinational states shrank, either into a small nucleus, as in the case of the Ottoman Empire or totally disintegrated as in the case of the Hapsburg Danube monarchy. A few nation states emerged as new entities: after an absence of 123 years, Poland resurfaced on the map of Europe.
Nevertheless, Wilson's programme was unable to bestow lasting peace in Europe. The political dynamite that the redrawing of national borders in the wake of the First World War had manufactured, exploded in the Second World War in the form of wholesale flight, displacement and death ultimately leading once more to the drawing of several new borders and shifting of boundaries. During the interwar years in Poland, fewer than two thirds of the population were ethnic Poles, whereas after 1945 this quotient had risen to 96 per cent.
After the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia as well as the division of Czechoslovakia have all shown once more that borders are never definitive, permanent, or immovable and never wholly correspond to the borders between nations and language groups – in Western Europe as well. South Tyrol and Northern Ireland are but two examples of this. The contradiction between the right to national self-determination on the one hand, and state sovereignty plus territorial integrity on the other, still obtains today. Wilson's demand for the self-determination of peoples also sparked emancipatory hopes in Europe or in the US colonies, but it wasn't until after the Second World War that the right to self-determination became an important factor for the independence of the colonies.
Up until that point, Europeans had, in the wake of their conquest of colonial empires, also exported their ideas about political order and supressed concepts of non-European societies. However, up until the beginning of the nineteenth century, colonialism generally had little influence on the re-ordering of territories according to European norms.
Many colonial empires began as semi-private endeavours – for example, a trading company on the coast, which entailed the indirect commercial annexation of the hinterland. It was only over the course of time that the European colonial powers increasingly acquired direct and formal sovereignty of their possessions, first of all in America and later in Africa and Asia. Around 1900, the majority of colonies were under the direct control of the mother countries.
During the era of New Imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century, the transformation from commercial to national colonialism led to a historically unique expansion of European dominion overseas as well as the exporting of the Europe model of statehood to the colonies. Nowhere was the transition from coastal-oriented seizure to the colonial penetration to the interior of a continent more clear than in the "division" of Africa upon a card table at the Congo conference in 1884/85 in Berlin.
However, western ideas about borders were still imposed on other countries that were never subject to the control of European imperial powers. This is exemplified by the influence wielded by the British consul to the Kingdom of Siam (Thailand). Admittedly, the exact demarcation of colonies didn't lead to the absolute control of the "metropolises" through these territories. As was often the case, the colonial powers lacked the means for a comprehensive exercise of their power. Cooperation and coordination with local elites and overlapping claims to sovereignty continued to be the order of the day.
Be that as it may, even if colonial dominion was short-lived and incomplete in many parts of the world: the introduction of the European state system in the extra-European world had profound consequences that still reverberate today. The majority of the 193 member states of the United Nations have a colonial past. In the wake of decolonisation after the Second World War, the political map of countries, such as Africa and Asia, assumed its present-day contours: colonies became sovereign states, their borders often coinciding with the external borders of colonial empires (as in the case of Africa) or have recourse to administrative internal boundaries (as in the case of French colonies in Indo-China). Precisely because these borders seldom reflected the dividing lines between ethnic or religious allegiances, independence often led to conflict in many places. A good example of this is India: the refounding of Pakistan as a sovereign Muslim state out of the partition of the British Raj in India in 1947 and the unregulated "population exchange" between Hindus and Muslims had a bloody legacy, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
The historically momentous collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of a bipolar world order around 1990 seemed to signal the end to all borders, at least in Europe. Indeed, during the twenty-eight years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, several internal European borders have dissolved.
However, in retrospect this historic development might seem to us like the blink of an eye. Boats crammed with refugees on the Mediterranean, corpses washed up on the beaches of Lampedusa and the towering barbed wire fences surrounding the Spanish enclave Melilla in Morocco are indicative of the fact that Europe has erected new walls around itself.
Even the European Union is not immune from the reactivation of old borders. Great Britain, a country that was never part of the Schengen Area, will leave the EU in March 2019. In addition, the Eurozone crisis has deeply divided the old continent. The ascendancy of right-wing, populist parties in many states in Europe demanding national isolation is a worrying omen for the future.
Sören Urbansky is an academic advisor at the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich and currently a postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Cambridge. He was awarded a PhD in 2014 under Jürgen Osterhammel and Karl Schlögel for his thesis on the history of the Sino-Russian border. His extensive research interests include colonial history and the history of borders and infrastructures.