Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Anthony Diener and Joshua Hagen: Borders

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Oxford University Press publishes an adorable little series of "Very Short Introductions." They're maybe 7" tall and 4" wide with simple abstract covers and they're just satisfying to hold in your hand. I stumbled on the collection by finding the book about borders (no surprise). The book is a round up of the what scholars of borders have found, and, while it's not news to me, it's nice to read the background and be reminded that there are borders beyond the US/Mexico border that I'm obsessed with.

Anthony Diener and Joshua Hagen start with an historical overview of borders and territory. Borders weren't always the way we think of them now. Without romanticizing hunter/gatherers, there had to be states to have borders, and even with states, borders weren't always the rigid territorial markers that we now think of them. Further, and this seems obvious, they weren't always the SAME borders that we have now. One of the things about borders is that we assume that they are natural and obvious, when in fact they are (usually) arbitrary and always, by definition, exclusionary. Not until absolute state sovereignty in Europe became a thing (16th and 17th century) were the means and requirements there for borders to be fixed. (Of course this practice spread well beyond Europe with colonization of Africa and the Americas.) Diener and Hagen explain the three implications of this: states were free to govern their territories without interference; states alone could legitimately engage in either diplomacy or war; and monarchs needed to mark borders of territories, people and resources to include and exclude in order to rule. Game on. 

Diener and Hagen raise important questions about borders beyond the physical aspects: "Do good borders make good neighbors or are borders impediments to international cooperation? Will state sovereignty continue to be prioritized over national independence? Will nation-states remain the primary global political/economic actors? Is a borderless world possible or even desirable?" (59) They discuss globalization and its myths and realities: can this concept (so popular in the '90s and early 2000s) really eradicate the need for borders? Are democratic states, demarcated by borders, possible? Borders, they argue, are not the result of democratic processes, as evident by the treatment of minority and indigenous populations who were trampled by the lines drawn. Is there a democratic way to create borders? As they write, "Ironically, democratic politics are expected to emerge from democratic institutions tied to modern states despite the fact that there cannot be democracy until democratic institutions and state borders are established." (70) Is it possible to overcome this tension? Do borders actually provide security or do they cause instability? Is there a way to balance this? This is a dense, important little book. It's dry and not the best written of books, but it's a good one and meets its goal: a short introduction.






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