Border Abstractions: Competing Notions of Sovereignty

The Himalayas: a traditional physical boundary. New geographies have complicated political and cultural borders. Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin Sacks

THE AMERICAN raid on Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden on Sunday, 1 May raised Islamabad’s concerns that its borders could be so easily breached by a foreign power. Washington cited Pakistan’s inability to control traffic through its borders as a factor behind the US decision not to inform the Pakistani military or the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) prior to the operation’s execution. Beyond the immediate coldness in Pakistani-American relations, however, is the broader relevance and role of boundaries in international affairs.

Physical geography defined the earliest boundaries. The first empires—including those of South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa—followed the course of rivers and hugged the sands of oceans. As civilisation moved into less-hospitable territory, Earth’s extremities became natural dividers. In the Americas, the wax and wane of the occidental mountain ranges determined the edges of the Mesoamerican civilisations. In Africa, the Sahara drew a nearly impassable barrier across the belly of the continent, fostering the development of multiple, distinct peoples. Perhaps most prominently, the Himalaya range sharply divided the Indian and Chinese civilisations from one another; even with tremendous cultural exchanges, the mountain peak-boundaries have changed little in the last two thousand years.

Political boundaries relied less on topographical geography. Products of nation-state organisation, many (but by no means all) political borders were formed from the machinations of seventeenth-, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European empires. Their efforts resulted both in regions of relative geopolitical harmony (North America) and, as documented by Ieuan Griffiths in a 1986 article, vicious instability (Africa, the Indian Subcontinent). RGS explorers and scholars have long been fascinated with how these borders came to be. In 1836, Colonel Don Juan Galindo read a paper to the Royal Geographical Society of his recent Central American travels. He classified borders along strictly political lines:

Central America comprehends the five states of Costarrica [sic], Nicaragua, Honduras, Salvador, and Guatemala, united in one federation, and whose seat of government is at the city of San Salvador, within the federal district… (121).

As well as physical boundaries:

The principal points of the boundary towards Mexico are the ruins of Palenque, the river Nojbecan in latitude 19° north, and the Rio Hondo. Towards New Granada the river Escudo of Veragua, which falls into the Caribbean sea [sic], and the river Boruca, which runs to the Pacific (121).

A similarly traditional article appeared in the May 1927 edition of The Geographical Journal. W E D Allen documented the dissolution of the Tsarist Russian ‘Vice-Royalty of the Caucasus’ in favour of the new, ‘people’s republics’ that, after a very brief period of independence, were brought under Soviet control.

But physical and political boundaries only tell a small part of the story. Transnational borders, as the name suggests, are more difficult to quantify. They cover a vast spectrum of diasporas, international organisations, historical and contemporary treaties and various attributes of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power. In 2005, John Pickles (University of North Carolina) asked how the European Union and the collapse of formal empires have radically altered continental perceptions of borders in a Schengen Agreement world. Geographers are also returning to historical movements that transcended political boundaries. Morag Bell (Loughborough University), for instance, extensively documented the rise of ethical-environmental standards across numerous borders in the last years of the nineteenth-century.

The haziness of contemporary cultural and nation-state boundaries often allows multiple border layers to overlap and contradict one another. A now famous example occurred in 1983, when the United States invaded the small Caribbean island of Grenada. Grenadian authorities protested that the invasion violated their sovereignty. The United States responded, arguing that the island’s Communist coup had endangered the lives of Americans studying there, thus threatening US borders. London also formally protested an incursion into what it saw as its own sphere of influence; Grenada is officially a constitutional monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.

The current row between Washington and Islamabad is similarly complex. Pakistan’s assertion of sovereignty violation is based on traditional, geopolitical boundaries. But if we look deeper, the truth is less precise. Since partition, Islamabad has enjoyed an intimate, if complicated relationship withWashington. These long-term bilateral relations permeate throughout both cultures—from Karachi’s markets to Chicago’s Diaspora community. Strong bilateral relations thus gradually bend the country’s relative boundaries with each other as trust builds. Too, the United States’ continuing role as the ‘World’s Policeman’ (and Pakistan’s official support, or at least acquiescence of that arrangement) further reshape bilateral boundaries. It is a point reviewed in Reece Jones’s (University of Hawai’i) ‘Geopolitical Boundary Narratives, the Global War on Terror and Border Fencing in India’.

W E D Allen, “New Political Boundaries in the Caucasus“, The Geographical Journal 69.5 (May, 1927): pp. 430-41.

Morag Bell, “Reshaping Boundaries: International Ethics and Environmental Consciousness in the Early Twentieth Century“, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 23.2 (Jun, 1998): pp. 151-75.

Don Juan Galindo, “On Central America“, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 6 (1836): pp. 119-35.

Ieuan Griffiths, “The Scramble for Africa: Inherited Political Boundaries“, The Geographical Journal 152.2 (Jul, 1986): pp. 204-16.

Reece Jones, “Geopolitical Boundary Narratives, the Global War on Terror and Border Fencing in India“, Transactions of the Institute for British Geographers New Series 34.3 (Jul, 2009): pp. 290-304.

John Pickles, “New Cartographies’ and the Decolonization of European Geographies“, Area 37.4 (Dec, 2005): pp. 355-64.






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