Borders in a borderless world

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Twenty-seven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, 25 years after the adoption of the Schengen Convention and 26 years after the publication of Kenichi Ohmae’s The Borderless World, borders are back.

And this is true not only in Europe, where an acute crisis in Syria may be thought responsible for this development, but also in the United States, where the soaring political success of Donald Trump began with his promise to build a wall to stop migration into the United States.

Why did so many think that borders are going away? And why should we be surprised that they have never left? The answer has to do with how we thought about and in part misunderstood the consequences of globalization. This freighted word has given birth to two opposing ideas.

A world more connected or divided?
The first idea is that technology renders distance irrelevant. Many people, both ardent advocates for globalism and their worried adversaries, believe that revolutions in communications and the increasingly costless acquisition and dissemination of information have tended to reduce the transaction costs of interaction and thus effectively shrink or even collapse distance.


There is some dispute as to whether this development was a positive or negative factor in international affairs. Some commentators thought that by obliterating old boundaries through transnational flows of capital, goods, people and information, globalization would also merge the national and the international, increasing the vulnerability of every state. As one former British chief of the defense staff wrote, “The world today is not a safer place [because]the distinction between home and abroad is strategically obsolete.”

But other commentators saw in, for example, the Arab Spring revolts in 2010 new possibilities for emancipation. As one New York Times columnist wrote, “On one side are government thugs firing bullets. On the other side are young protesters firing ‘tweets.’” Some concluded that the suspicions and distaste that national groups often expressed toward each other would vanish once we no longer lived in a world of isolated, local nations, separated by high tariff walls, poor communications networks and cultural hostility born of ignorance.

An opposing camp, however, saw globalization in a very different light. They quoted George Orwell, who mocked “the automatic way in which people go on repeating certain phrases… two great favorites are ‘the abolition of distance’ and the ‘disappearance of frontiers’” at a time when states re-erected frontiers, dominated radio to broadcast propaganda and controlled travel and migration as never before. For this group, the world is not nearly as connected as we would be led to believe. Most types of economic activity that could be conducted either within or across borders are actually quite concentrated within borders. While it may be true that “investment knows no boundaries,” more than 90 percent of investment in the world is domestic. Indeed, the amount of internationalization associated with cross-border migration, telephone calls, education and research, patent creation and trade as a fraction of GDP all stand at about 10 percent.

Moreover, as a political matter we simply do not have a world where national borders are irrelevant and where citizens increasingly view themselves as members of a broader political community. As one critic argued in Foreign Policy magazine:

“Geographical boundaries are so pervasive, they even extend to cyberspace. If there were one realm in which borders should be rendered meaningless and the globalization proponents should be correct in their overly optimistic models, it should be the Internet. Yet Web traffic within countries and regions has increased far faster than traffic between them. Just as in the real world, Internet links decay with distance. People across the world may be getting more connected, but they aren’t connecting with each other. The average South Korean Web user may be spending several hours a day online — connected to the rest of the world in theory — but he is probably chatting with friends across town and e-mailing family across the country rather than meeting a fellow surfer in Los Angeles. We’re more wired, but no more ‘global.’”

Well, which is it? Are we in the grip of an irreversible trend toward greater integration or has the tide toward fragmentation already set in? The answer, I have come to believe, is yes. Because the reality is that both these characterizations are inaccurate; globalization actually empowers locality, and intensifies the need for protecting locality. In other words, we will have more borders, not fewer, and more walls because we are building more bridges.

It is sometimes argued that the market states that I predicted would be a result of globalization, among other things, have been arrested by the surge in nationalism we are witnessing everywhere. But this objection is rather like the two-part, antiphonal analysis with which I began. In fact, market states are far more hospitable to nationalism than imperial or industrial nation-states ever were. That is because the imperial state-nations of the 19th century, which fused the state and the nation, and their successors in the 20th century, the industrial nation-states, exalted a single nation and crushed its competitors. The British state was an English state, the Spanish state a Castilian state, the Chinese state a Han state, the Indian state a Hindi state. It is only the market state that makes viable a cultural political enclave like Catalonia, or the Basque region or Lombardy or Flanders or Scotland.

A growing need for cooperation
This brings me to the point of my column: The change in the nature of the State that we are witnessing will exalt borders precisely because they are being rendered more vulnerable. And the task for policymakers is to realize this and to recognize that it will demand greater cross-border cooperation rather than less.

Take, for example, the problem of migration, leaving aside the acute crisis arising from the Syrian conflict. Take the position in which the United States finds itself.

With nearly 500 million US border crossings a year, and over one-quarter of Americans possessing passports, the US government faces a daunting challenge in protecting the United States from being overwhelmed by immigrants and preventing the travel-and-immigration system from being exploited by terrorists and criminals. Unfortunately, the public debate has tended to fuse these two objectives. In fact this is precisely the wrong approach for the reasons I have suggested: The cure for the vulnerabilities introduced by globalization is more international cooperation, not less. Let me illustrate this with examples from both domains, terrorism and large-scale migration.

The 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by foreign nationals who were able to obtain temporary visas and gain entry into the United States. By providing false information on visa applications and/or presenting illegally altered passports, the 19 hijackers were granted 22 of the 23 visas for which they applied, and 9/11 conspirators were able to enter the United State 33 times (having been denied entry only a single time) over the course of 21 months.

The Obama administration’s immigration enforcement strategy gives priority to the apprehension of the most dangerous unauthorized persons, including those deemed threats to national security. The means of accomplishing this is by “pushing US borders out” through the use of pre-arrival screening mechanisms that rely heavily on deepening and broadening international cooperation via the collection, sharing and processing of traveler data. These methods for sharing and processing traveler data and the increased emphasis on biometrics represent a shift away from “sorting” travelers solely on the basis of their national origin to sorting travelers according to individual behavior and past records, including their travel records. Had we had such an agreement in place before 9/11, I think we could have avoided that tragedy.

Now consider the other objective of controlling our borders. Until the mid-1980s, migration from Mexico to the United States was churned by the movement of Mexican males entering to find employment and then returning to spend their savings. From 1965 to 1986, for example, it is estimated that 86 percent of the illegal entrants were offset by their subsequent returns and thus the undocumented population rose slowly — less than 1 percent of the US population over two decades. In 1986, however, we adopted the Immigration Reform and Control Act, supported by US President Ronald Reagan’s warnings that “terrorists and subversives” were entering the country. The result was that illegal immigrants who now faced much more rigorous barriers to entry simply stopped returning to their native countries. And one consequence of that was that they were increasingly joined by their wives and families. The result was a vast increase in the numbers of illegal aliens, as well as a huge increase in the number of children of unauthorized immigrants, about 80 percent of whom are US citizens. The number of undocumented aliens thus rose from less than 3 million in 1986 to between 11 million and 12 million today, with all the consequences for internal division we are experiencing now.

The transcendence of borders by emerging market states will make all borders, including those internal cultural ones, more salient, not less. And the cure for the vulnerabilities these developments introduce is more cross-border cooperation, not less.

© 2016, STRATFOR GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE

Philip Bobbitt is a leading constitutional theorist whose interests include international security and the history of military strategy. He currently serves on the faculties of Columbia Law School and the University of Texas, where he is the Herbert Wechsler Professor of Jurisprudence, and Distinguished Senior Lecturer, respectively. He has published eight books. His bestsellers include The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History (2002) and Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century (2008). His most recent book is The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World That He Made (2014).

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