A Politics of Borders in a Summer of Crisis

A Politics of Borders in a Summer of Crisis

Due to international tensions, the current summer has been labelled as the “summer of crisis”. Politicians have responded through a language of borders, but the question arises whether such discourse is suitable to denominate contemporary conflicts.

Although the summer of 2014 has not yet finished, it has already been labelled as the summer of crisis. Indeed, with violent tensions in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Nigeria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, and with the spread of Ebola in Western Africa, the current summer has allegedly shown us the unpredictability of contemporary global politics. Such developments create significant worldwide anxiety, as has been measured, for example, in the Netherlands by EénVandaag.

A border discourse

Amidst these developments, politicians in Western countries have responded with a discourse of borders. That is to say, governments have responded by focussing on the defence of their sovereign borders for the protection of national moral values. For example, in relation to pro-ISIS demonstrations in The Hague, Sybrand van Haersma Buma, the political leader of the Dutch Christian Democratic Party (CDA), stated in late-night talkshow Pauw of 3 September 2014 that “the truth is that we have a significant danger in our society that we are insufficiently dealing with. […] We have to draw borders, because if we do not, we will lose our way of living. And that’s why I say that we ought to criminalise glorification [of Jihadism], which is already the case in Spain, and in France, and in Denmark”. Simultaneously, the leader of the Party for Freedom (PVV), Geert Wilders, argued that “war has been declared to us” and called upon Prime Minister Rutte to close the Dutch borders for immigrants from Islamic countries. As he puts it himself, “[a]way with these people, enough is enough”.

As outlined in a recent Leiden Law Blog post by Dr. Maartje van der Woude, the Dutch government has subsequently introduced an action plain against Jihadism. As she points out, two proposed measures – i.e. the proposal to take away Dutch citizenship without a criminal conviction and the proposal to keep records of the complete population’s travel movement – are questionable in terms of their necessity, legitimacy, effectiveness, and effects. Still, similar legislative proposals have been reported in, amongst others, the UK, Australia and Norway. Again, such responses are full of border discourse: protecting national sovereignty through the removal of passports, preventing Jihadists from crossing back into the country, and tracking border-crossing data of all citizens.

What is a border?

At this point, it is of interest to ask ourselves: what is a border? As outlined by Balibar (2002), it is not possible to provide a simple answer to this question, because “we cannot attribute to the border an essence which would be valid in all places and at all times, for all physical scales and time periods, and which would be included in the same way in all individual and collective experience […]”. In a similar vein, as stated by Diener & Hagen (2012), “[w]e live in a very bordered world”, with borders being “central features in current international disputes relating to security, migration, trade, and natural resources”. At the same time, borders can only be deemed to exist insofar as they are provided with meaning through interpretation. An appropriate understanding of borders can therefore help to explain the intractability of border disputes and territory claims, as geographical boundaries are often little more than social and symbolic representations and practical embodiments of socially constructed territoriality. Borders should therefore not be regarded as mere static lines on a map: rather, borders are processes, which exist on a number of levels and which are provided with significance, or a meaning, through their social construction. As some argue, “the border is everywhere”, with “some borders being “no longer situated at the borders at all, in the geographico-politico-administrative sense of the term”.

Borders in a post-Westphalian world order

I propose that various crises that have occurred during thes summer should be understood from such a conception of borders. Indeed, globalisation and technological innovation have contributed to a border reality in which borders are both globalised and internalised through increased international cooperation (e.g. the EU), international communication (e.g. the internet) and international exchange (e.g. through travelling and migration). That is to say, Westphalian borders are no longer dominant dividers of peoples and ideologies, with individuals and cultural ideas having spread rapidly around the world. Thus, it is my contention that the borders of contemporary conflicts are no longer those of the Westphalian-arranged States, but those of individuals who have become petty sovereigns by carrying, as it were, their own borders.

For example, when regarding the ISIS-movement, two issues are noteworthy in this respect: first, that the ISIS-movement is looking to establish a caliphate in disregard of Westphalian-inspired borders, and second, that wide support for the ISIS movement is not limited to the Middle-East but can also be found elsewhere. Indeed, the border has become an experience lived by individual citizens, and although it is difficult to imagine being a border, such a conception appears to be correct in contemporary society where borders seem to align to values rather than to geographical delineations.

The problem, then, is one of Westphalian border politics in a non-Westphalian border reality. Indeed, whilst various countries act from the perspective of protecting their national borders and interests, international conflicts are no longer restricted to such demarcations. This is neatly illustrated by the fact that various countries are cancelling the passports of suspected Jihadists: indeed, the perceived danger is posed from within their own society, with people being borders in and of themselves. By stating that “we” should protect and close “our” borders to protect “our” values therefore appears to be an outdated political strategy, because the “we” is no longer homogeneously situated on one side of the conflict but contains individuals on both sides of the border. Indeed, the “we” now also includes the “them” and vice versa, making the “we-them”-distinction redundant. Although questioned for its necessity, legitimacy, effectiveness and side-effects, withdrawing passports of individuals could be a way to deal with these issues, but the current underlying premise – i.e. defending our national borders and our national culture – does not sufficiently take contemporary border realities into account.

The same denial of individual ‘bordership’ can be recognised in the political responses regarding other international crises. Thus, in relation to the current conflict in Ukraine, Western governments continuously respond with outrage and sanctions targeting Russia, thereby overlooking the fact that fighters on both sides of the conflict are not arranged in accordance with national borders but consist of a plethora of nationalities, carrying borders in and of themselves. As such, in a globalised world, Westphalian demarcations are no longer indicative of the actual global distribution of borders and provide an oversimplified and unwarranted conception of global politics. Indeed, contemporary borders cut right across Westphalian nation States.

It is therefore time for politicians to acknowledge this reality and to provide responses that align with it. That should not only occur on a national level, but also on the international law-making plain: indeed, international humanitarian law as outlined in the Geneva Conventions remains Westphalian-centred and does not bind non-State actors. Some politicians, however, already seem to acknowledge the border reality as outlined above: as Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans outlines in his H.J. Schoo speech, “[if the summer has taught us something, it is that the border of Europe is sometimes situated across the Schilderswijk of the Hague, sometimes between the political fractions in the European Parliament, sometimes in Ukraine, sometimes in the suburbs of Paris, sometimes in the collective inability to protect our values. The border of Europe is situated where our values are being challenged, are being fought for, are being reduced, and where it is necessary to defend them.” Given the foregoing, it is to be hoped that such rhetoric meets action and that future action plans will be premised on a contemporary understanding of post-Westphalian borders.


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