Are Our Borders Better Than Your Borders?


Future historians might well brand 2015 the “year of borders.” Presidential hopeful Donald Trump used the word “border” a full seven times in his seven and a half-minute campaign announcement in mid-June, and his proposal to build a wall on our southern border has been a major theme in the GOP primary season thus far. Before he dropped out of the race, Republican Gov. Scott Walker said that another wall — this one on the northern U.S. border with Canada — might also be needed. Yet while we see our own borders as inviolable, we seemingly have few issues deploying American power across others’ sovereign lines as soon as we deem any threat exists to our security or economic interests. The strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.

The refugee crisis in Europe has also dominated recent headlines. European Union leaders are in crisis mode as they try to figure out how to handle a flood of migrants from Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere, all seeking out the relative stability and prosperity of Europe. These events collectively reveal a deep hypocrisy in how many Americans and some Europeans view their own borders and those of nations abroad. If the United States and its partners in Europe are to develop effective plans for border security, policymakers and citizens alike must reflect more deeply on the relationships between borders and identity, and they must agree upon a more global interpretation of what sovereign boundaries truly mean in the 21st century.

At times, our recent incursions against terrorist organizations and their sanctuaries are conducted with permission of the sovereign power. In other cases — as in Pakistan, for example — the United Nations judged that U.S. military strikes represented “the use of force on the territory of another State without its consent and … therefore a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.” While some Pakistani leaders might quietly encourage U.S. strikes, the current political dialogue in the United States suggests such intricacies matter little as long as “terrorists” are being killed abroad.

Without question, the September 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. soil continue to shed a long, dark shadow over how most Americans think about border security. Yet keeping terrorists at bay now has become only part of a much larger discussion. Recent political debate has increasingly recast Mexico and developing countries more generally as badlands overflowing with violent, job-thieving political agitators. In this formulation, the United States is an ill-constructed fortress under constant threat of attack, a narrative in which terrorists are too readily conflated with immigrants hardly intent on doing harm to America.

Such alarmist language complicates what should be a more balanced discussion on borders. National security interests certainly ought to help guide a nation’s foreign policy, but inflammatory rhetoric on border security has taken on a tenor in which the very cultural fabric of the United States now seems threatened. Is it possible that the permeability of one’s borders can endanger an entire nation’s way of life?

Certainly, recent events show that the impact of war can traverse international boundaries just as easily as terrorism. For example, the past few months have demonstrated that the Middle East’s economic and military problems are capable of driving great cross-border migrations that impact European domestic politics and raise deep questions over the moral responsibilities of states. Across EU nations, political leaders and citizens alike have wrestled over how best to cope with a migrant crisis as controversial for Europeans as it is dangerous for refugees.

In Germany, for instance, the Interior Ministry has estimated it would process approximately 800,000 asylum applications by year’s end. “This is a challenge for all of us,” affirmed Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, but “Germany is not overwhelmed.” In Hungary, others spoke in much more vigilant tones. The conservative newspaper Magyar Nemzet invoked militarist language and declared a “war on all fronts.” Its lead writer proclaimed Hungary was under attack, depicting the nation’s border as “besieged by those who think they have the basic human right to march across Europe without documents.”

Yet the immediate problems posed by borders — like the status and care of refugees fleeing from war — also highlight conceptual problems as well, especially from a military standpoint. As one observer recently noted, invasions of countries with cross-border sanctuaries “can lead to a new set of unforeseen problems in the neighboring country.” Smaller-scale incursions present their own set of deeper questions. Does the term “border,” for example, assume different meanings when placed in cultural, economic, or security-related contexts? Too few Americans grapple with these more abstract aspects of borders.

For the United States, the question of borders has less to do with the nation serving as a sanctuary for refugees and more about how citizens and policymakers envision the similarities and differences between our own national borders and those of other countries. The recent political debates at home suggest a wide disparity between the two. To remain safe, a policy of global engagement combined with walling the nation off from potential adversaries affords the United States broad latitude in overseas interventions. In the process, as exemplified by Gov. Walker’s remarks, American foreign policy assumes a decidedly militaristic face.

To create a “new — and, by American standards, better — political order across the Greater Middle East,” as some conservative scholars recommend, the United States would have to take little heed of sovereign boundaries. The instability of the region is reason enough for American intervention. Thus emerge enticing calls for the United States “to destroy Assad’s air force and impose no-fly zones over areas” of Syria and for U.S. special forces to assist with “clearing and holding Syrian territory.” A threat arises, present or anticipated, so the borders of others must be infringed.

This slanted image of America’s place in a hostile world has deep European roots, emanating from political thought on the international state system codified in the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. The peace ending the Thirty Years War, in Henry Kissinger’s words, elevated the state system into a “guiding principle of world order.” States clearly wrestled with balancing national self-interests and international order, but the raison d’état could be menacing if taken to the extreme by trumping international law. As Kissinger asked, “How far would one go before the interests of the state were deemed satisfied? How many wars were needed to achieve security?”

Given that many U.S. defense officials see themselves grappling with the problems of “enduring” or “perpetual” war, the actual number of wars needed to answer Kissinger’s questions might be immeasurable.

Less discussed in advocating for a global approach to a purportedly global Islamist enemy is how we define the crucial term “borders.” Recent foreign policy deliberations over Libya, Syria, and Iran have mostly opened with the assumption that the United States alone reserves the right to violate other states’ borders as long as its interests are threatened. Critics may assail the preemptive attacks called for by the Bush Doctrine, but most American political leaders seem to have few qualms about insisting that America’s sovereignty and borders must be kept inviolable while simultaneously, and with little explicit justification, arguing that the same standard does not apply to other states.

It is a longstanding principle of international relations that no state has the right to employ force inside the borders of another state without the permission of the latter. Yet regardless of the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement establishing that all American combat forces would depart Iraq before the close of 2011, hawkish pundits like Max Boot continue to call on the president to “lift the prohibition on U.S. ‘boots on the ground.’” Within the argument lies a crucial presumption. If Iraqi leaders could not (and still cannot) control violence inside their borders, we are justified in violating those borders.

Such arguments take on even greater implications when extended to the more recent phenomenon of drone warfare. In large part, the Obama administration has operated here with little regard from the general public or oversight from the legislative branch. American political leaders on both sides of the aisle have rarely opposed the use of armed drones to kill terrorists (and, inevitably, some innocent bystanders) in foreign countries, even without the permission of their sovereign governments, on moral or ethical grounds. Only when surveillance drones flying over American soil threaten the privacy of American citizens does any outrage emerge.

This hypocrisy is dangerous and has the potential to seriously undermine our national security interests. Defining U.S. borders as sacrosanct while concurrently holding others’ borders in contempt, if even acknowledging them at all, only furthers a sense of global inequality. Does American exceptionalism allow for secure borders only here at home?

Clearly, U.S. national security depends upon global engagement. That engagement, however, must consider how others, even leaders and supporters of the Islamic State, view national borders. If Islamic State leaders do not accept the validity of constructed national border lines, does de-legitimizing the sanctity of borders actually play into their hands? If borders are indeed political constructions, how easily should they be penetrated? Who should be involved when determining how borders are negotiated?

Non-state actors surely grapple with such questions about whether shared ideologies trump a sense of national identity and belonging. Perhaps we should as well. For example, if the United States is to succeed in cultivating allies who share a “future vision of Iraq and Syria that is more attractive than the status quo,” then that vision should aspire toward a more common, even global, recognition of what sovereign boundaries really mean in the contemporary international order.

With election campaigning intensifying as summer fades, it is time for Americans to reflect upon how we think about borders. The recent Syrian refugee crisis clearly demonstrates that borders are both porous and contested, especially in times of war. But a comprehensive approach to national security requires Americans to reflect more deeply on the contradictions between how they view borders at home and borders abroad.


Gregory A. Daddis is an associate professor of history and director of the Master of Arts program in War and Society at Chapman University.

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