Not just lines: An interview with Joshua Hagen about borders

Not just lines: An interview with Joshua Hagen about borders

Static and eternal, or changeable and erasable? State borders have always been there and they are essential for the idea of the nation state. We etch them into physical existence. Think of a state and you visualise the outlines on a map, walls or security fences and lines in the sand. Today, borders are a natural part of the world of man, despite their artificial nature.

Published in Tidsskriftet REPLIKK #38: grenser

Yet, what do we know of borders? In the seemingly borderless European Union they are regarded as something from the past, while in the Middle East and along Russia’s frontiers, borders are dead serious business. REPLIKK” sat down by the keyboard with Joshua Hagen, professor of Geography at Marshall University in the United States. Hagen is co-author of Borders: A Very Short Introduction and co-editor of Borderlines and Borderlands: Political Oddities at the Edge of the Nation-State.[1]

It may seem like a banal question, but what are borders and what are their function and purpose?

– Borders have traditionally been understood as lines dividing different territories or jurisdictions. More recently, scholars have begun to think of borders as a process or set of processes that help mark and create differences between places. In that sense, it is increasingly common across border studies to discuss ‘bordering’, instead of simply borders, to emphasis the active nature of borders and border making.

Are borders only a periphery for a nation state? Are they barriers or gateways?

– Borders have varied purposes and levels of permeability. Paradoxically, borders simultaneously serve to facilitate and block entry. In many ways, borders in recent years have become increasingly open to the movement of goods and information, but increasingly closed to the movement of people. Or perhaps I should say certain types of people. Highly educated or wealthy people are able to travel quite freely and an increasing number of governments around the world are actively courting these elite classes to enter their territory. On the other hand, many of the same governments have strengthened their border controls to prevent uneducated, poor people from entering.

– Borders exist at multiple levels and scales. We tend to pay most attention to international borders dividing nation states, and they certainly make for interesting objects of study. Take the European Union, for example. The EU is often used as an example of the diminished importance of borders and the general idea of the End of Geography. Yet the evolution of EU’s borders is better thought of as a process of re-bordering. The borders between most EU members are now marked by high levels of openness with free movement of people and goods. Yet the EU has simultaneously endeavoured to harden the borders between EU members and non-members, especially across Eastern Europe and along the Mediterranean region.

State borders are something that we take for granted, but in the introduction to Borderlines and Borderlands you write that borders as a research topic has varied in importance and at some point hardly any researchers paid attention to it at all. Nick Vaughan-Williams have called it a potential ‘blindspot in the International Relations’.[2] Why is the study of borders important? Have we reached the End of Geography, where the importance of borders is disappearing?

– There have been several scholars who have claimed we have reached the End of Geography. These calls roughly coincided with the end of the Cold War, the advent of the Internet, the proliferation of global corporations and international trade agreements, and finally similar predictions that the world had reached the End of History. Events soon proved otherwise. Indeed, I would argue that the cumulative impact of recent events has been to make geography more important.

– For example, an American business owner around 1900 had relatively limited options when deciding where to locate a new factory. Limitations in shipping and communication, high tariffs and other government restrictions on trade, and other factors would have largely restricted the selection process to considering locations in the USA or perhaps North America. Today, because of advances in transportation, communication, lower tariffs and varied trade agreements, and the eventual introduction of the Industrial Revolution to developing countries, an American business owner could literally locate their factory most anywhere around the world. This makes understanding the differences between places around the world and how their various advantages and disadvantages could impact factory operations even more important. The business owners that have greater geographical understanding will be better positioned to select the most advantageous location, and thus gain an edge over their competitors. So geography matters, I would argue, now more than ever.

Some borders are often described as natural while others are referred to as artificial, usually borders with colonial origins. This idea of artificial borders is sometimes used as an explanation for conflicts and instability. This idea is, however, somewhat arbitrary since all borders, in the end, are artificial. But the idea still persists. Why do you think that we tend to think of borders as either artificial or natural?

– You are quite right that people tend to distinguish between natural and artificial borders. Borders that follow some type of natural feature, like a mountain range or a river, are often assumed to possess greater legitimacy than borders that follow some artificial feature, like a line of latitude. There is really no basis for this distinction, and there is no reason or evidence that a border based on a river, for example, provides a ‘better’ border than one that follows a line of latitude. All borders are created by people and ultimately reflect their assumptions, priorities, and biases. The claim that this or that border is somehow natural usually reflects some underlying political agenda. Many French elites, for example, claimed that the Rhine River constituted France’s natural border with Germany, but this claim was motivated by the expansion and consolidation of the French state during the 17th and 18th century.

We are used to thinking of borders as clear lines that you can step over, but if we look back a hundred years there were a lot of frontiers and buffer zones. Are frontiers extinct or do some still exist in one way or another?

– The world map has largely been drawn, and the number of international border disputes has declined greatly over the course of the last century. Today, border disputes are more likely to be within a country, such the various independence movements scattered around the world. Borders within nation states are often overlooked, but they too can have quite dramatic consequences. Many countries create electoral districts to form the basis for membership in representative assemblies. Borders between municipalities and even neighbourhoods can lead to uneven access to educational or health services.

– The remaining international border disputes tend to involve maritime claims, for example, competing claims by China and its neighbours in Southeast Asia over ownership of the South China Sea. Frontiers, commonly defined as a vague zone of overlap and transition between two jurisdictions, were the norm before the rise of the modern nation state and contemporary notions of sovereignty and citizenship. Following this definition, frontiers do not really exist anymore with few exceptions, like perhaps Antarctica. Yet, just because international borders have been defined, it does not mean that they are marked or guarded along their entire length. The borders of many developing countries, for example those in the Saharan and Sahel regions in Africa, might only be evident at a few locations, such as where major roads intersect the border. Vast stretches of borders remain open, unmarked, and unguarded. So in a certain sense, these areas share many characteristics of earlier frontier regions.

One region known for straight borderlines is the Middle East, home to one of the worlds most famous border conflicts (Israel/Palestine). The regional political order and its borders were established after the First World War, loosely based on the (in)famous Sykes-Picot agreement between Great Britain and France. From time to time, and especially after the Arab Spring and rise of jihadist group The Islamic State (IS), media commentators and scholars proclaim the end of Sykes-Picot, often coupled with a map of an imagined re-bordering of the future Middle East. These exercises are entertaining, but as one commentator states: ‘Land borders settled via negotiation, especially when sealed by treaty, tend to be stable, even where relations between the neighboring states remain volatile or even hostile.’[3] How hard would it really be to eliminate or change these types of borders in general and, in the Middle East, introduce a system not based on Sykes-Picot? Does it take more than a jihadist terror group?

– We noted above that all borders result from human activity and they are to a certain extent arbitrary and artificial. Despite that, the international community is extremely reluctant to consider redrawing the map, even in situations where the current borders were imposed by outsiders instead of negotiations between locals. The paucity of border changes and new states, such as South Sudan, since the wave of decolonization after World War II demonstrates this. While one could make a good case for redrawing certain borders or creating new states to better reflect realities on the ground, the problem is that there would almost certainly be divergent views concerning where the new borders would be located. Since sovereignty is a zero-sum situation, it becomes an all-or-none situation, making it difficult for competing groups to find acceptable compromises. The end result all too often is inter-ethnic violence. So the international community’s basic assumption is that although the current borders may be deeply flawed and arbitrary in origin, any new ones are unlikely to be much better and could possibly be worse, for example by encouraging ethnic cleansing to support a group’s claim to certain territories. States facing active secessionist movements as diverse as Spain and China would also be reluctant to support such efforts because openness to redrawing borders raises the question of why Catalonia or Tibet should not be afforded similar opportunities. Given the lack of consensus among local groups, many of whom are actively fighting each other, and the lack of consensus among the major world powers, which are also divided on a host of issues, it is difficult to see how any new system would be formed and implemented. Of course, the current border regime in the Middle East or elsewhere could always be overthrown through brute force, as occurred in Europe during and following World War II and as the Islamic State is attempting to do now in the Middle East.

In your opinion, what is the most interesting border in the world today?

– It is hard not to pick the Iraqi-Syrian border as the most interesting border in the world at the moment. The group that currently controls much of the territory on both sides of the border, the Islamic State, claims to have erased the border as it establishes a new Caliphate in the region. The international community considers the Islamic State a terrorist organization and has not recognized its claims, yet it is unclear what can be done. The US and other Western powers appear resistant to large-scale intervention, Turkey seems intent to stay out altogether, and the various Iraqi and Syrian forces appear too weak and disorganized to defeat the Islamic State on their own. For now, it appears the Islamic State has achieved the de facto partition of Iraq and Syria.

… and in history?

– The Stele of the Vultures, currently in the Louvre, and other later artefacts recount a border dispute between the ancient Sumerian city-states of Umma and Lagash sometime around the 25th century BCE. We only have the winner’s side of the story, in this case Lagash, and it is also incomplete. Despite that, the story of the border’s divine origins, Umma’s violation of the border, and the eventual Lagash victory and re-establishment of the border provide insights into some of the earliest predecessors of our modern state system.

If we compare a map from the 1930s with a current one, we clearly see that the borders have changed. Even though we tend to think of borders as static and to some degree eternal, they tend to change over time. Different borders are established in different periods for different purposes. In what ways have the idea and meaning for borders changed? Do you think that the recent events in the Middle East and along the Russian border might indicate that the idea of the ‘borderless world’ is out-dated or that the way we think of borders are changing?

– Most of the basic assumptions for borders have remained in place, such as the recognition of territorial sovereignty. Yet there have been growing calls among some, especially human rights activists, in support of more interventionist approaches. They have argued that the international community has a responsibility to protect threatened groups that supersedes the sovereignty of individual states. This argument was used to help justify Western intervention in the Libyan Civil War. Concerns about global environmental issues, especially climate change, have also fuelled calls for binding global treaties, which would diminish state sovereignty and the importance of borders. Both ideas face broad opposition and are unlikely to be enshrined in international law for the foreseeable future. Recent events may seem to call into question the importance of borders, but in general what we are seeing is better described as a re-bordering than a de-bordering of certain parts of the world.

In International Relations theory there is this idea that the state system of today is locked in a ‘territorial trap’. Could you explain this idea?

– The concept of the territorial trap was coined by geographer John Agnew. The basic idea is that established conventions of the contemporary international system serve to constrain thought, specifically that the nation-state/country represents the relevant organizational unit of … well … mostly everything: economics, citizenship, labour, capital, identity, et cetera. A quick example from sports: Our most prominent sporting events, like the World Cup or the Olympics, utilize states as the basic organizational units for determining team composition and participation, but there is no real reason that this must be linked to those political territories. It is easy to imagine the Olympics organized outside of a nation state basis. Simply have qualifying races around the world, and the people with the fastest times get to race. Even if all the top times happen to be Jamaicans, this would have the world’s very best compete. But it has become accepted thought that the Olympics should or must be conceived and organized around states. There are also special interests that have entrenched themselves around this paradigm. Here, the territorial trap has sprung and locked us into a specific spatial and organizational configuration.

The countries of the earth are very diverse in both people and nature. Are modern political borders universally viable? Is it possible to escape the territorial trap?

– There are some efforts to escape the territorial trap. As noted above, many activists believe human rights and climate change are two issues that must be addressed outside of and above the traditional nation state jurisdictions. Intergovernmental organizations and international non-governmental organizations have proliferated and are increasingly important international actors, such as the World Trade Organization in organizing the global economy or Doctors Without Borders helping to battle Ebola. Yet states remain the dominant actors and it will be their actions, or more likely their inactions, that will shape our future. The territorial trap has sprung and we are largely stuck with it for the foreseeable future.

The state borders within the EU have faded and a common idea is that the future is a borderless world and that crossing borders is easier than ever as the world becomes more and more global. But considering the rise of security fences and barriers around the world, Julian Borger, a diplomatic editor of The Guardian, stated in 2007 that ‘the new age of the wall has begun’.[4] How do you envision the future of borders? Will we enter the integrated utopia or venture into the global fragmented dystopia?

– I suspect the future of borders will remain as contradictory, arbitrary, and fascinating as it is today. Borders at all scales will continue to serve as foundational units for organizing daily activities all the way up to international relations. The question of utopia or dystopia will likely vary depending on wealth, education, and luck of birth. Those possessing riches or valued skills, or simply the good fortune to be born in developed countries, are likely to find the world increasingly open to them. People lacking those types of advantages are likely to find the world increasingly closed.


  1. Hagen, Joshua and Alexander C. Diener (2012): Borders: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Hagen, Joshua and Alexander C. Diener (ed.) (2010): Borderlines and Borderlands: Political Oddities at the Edge of the Nation-State. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.  ↩

  2. Vaughan-Williams, Nick (2012): Border Politics: The Limits of Sovereign Power. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, p. 4–5  ↩

  3. Simon, Steven (2014): «The Middle East’s Durable Map». Foreign Affairs, 26 August. (Read 26 August 2014):  ↩

  4. Borger, Julian (2007): «Security fences or barriers to peace?». The Guardian, 24 April. (Read 5 October 2014):  ↩

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