Just a little more than four years ago, I visited a converted schoolhouse in Fond Parisien, Haiti, eight miles from the Dominican border, where about 50 people were living in squalid and desperate conditions as refugees. They were Haitian by ethnicity, but had little to no connection to the country they had just arrived in. Some older adults in the camp had dim memories of Haiti from their childhoods. The children had never seen it at all. Tens of thousands of people either fled or were bused across the border that summer in the aftermath of a 2013 constitutional court decision that retroactively removed Dominican citizenship from anyone born to non-Dominican parents since 1929. The feared mass deportation of the D.R.’s nearly half-million strong Haitian community never materialized, but citizens and local authorities often took matters into their own hands: One 52-year-old man who had left Haiti with his family when he was 12 told me he appealed to the police for help when armed gunmen attacked his farm, but they simply put him on a bus to the border.
Despite a history of occupation and genocide, the line between Haiti and the Dominican Republic has been fluid at many points in history. Then it suddenly wasn’t so fluid.
The Dominican government’s expulsion of the Haitians felt as absurd as it was cruel in 2014. But in the past five years, this same dynamic has spread across the world.
Two weeks ago, a 41-year-old Detroit man named Jimmy Aldaoud died weeks after being deported to Iraq. Aldaoud was a member of the Christian Chaldean minority that is persecuted in Iraq and now faces the threat of mass deportation from the United States. He had never been to Iraq, spoke no Arabic, and reportedly told ICE agents, “Please, I’ve never seen that country. I’ve never been there.” The story of Aldaoud’s death was reported just as ICE agents detained 680 Latino immigrants in a raid on food processing plants in Mississippi.
It’s not just an American story. National governments all over the world are drawing hard lines. By the end of this month, the Indian government may disenfranchise as many as 4 million people in the state of Assam—most of them Muslim—unless they can prove their ancestors lived in India prior to 1971, the year of Bangladesh’s independence. If they can’t, they could be subject to detention or expelled to Bangladesh, a country with little interest in taking in a large new population of stateless people. Assam is a border region—like the U.S.-Mexican border, like the Haitian-Dominican border—with a long history of cross-border migration and settlement. When hard-line nationalists take power, such ambiguity in borderlines is no longer tolerated.
At the same time that these governments are pushing out anyone who can be plausibly denied citizenship, countries are cracking down on territorial anomalies as well. India earlier this month ended the special autonomous status for the restive state of Jammu and Kashmir, setting the stage for a military crackdown on the predominantly Muslim region. The region had long been exempted from parts of the Indian Constitution and set its own laws, even as it remained under Indian control, an anomalous status that a government under the sway of Hindu nationalism will no longer tolerate. Meanwhile, protesters in the streets of Hong Kong are pushing back against efforts by the Chinese government to chip away at the semi-independent status it has enjoyed—known as “one country, two systems”—since the former British colony came under Chinese control in 1997. While the protesters successfully defeated a controversial extradition law, in the long run, they’re likely to lose the battle—”one country, two systems” is due to come to an end in 2047, and Hong Kong, despite its wealth, has little hope of holding out against Beijing’s power indefinitely.
These stories are all signs that national governments are waging a war against ambiguity—of citizenship, of territorial status—to enforce a rigid and uniform vision of statehood. Those who carry out and defend these policies believe they are enforcing order and protecting their societies from lawlessness, but they’re likely to result in a more chaotic and disordered world.
It’s been 100 years since U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, in the wake of World War I, called for the world’s empires to be broken up into states “along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.” It was a much longer and messier process than anticipated, but this eventually more or less happened. The 20th century saw the breakup of Europe’s territorial empires; the end of colonialism in Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia; and the emergence of nation-states as the dominant form of political organization on the planet. We now take for granted that the world’s landmass is divided into 193 units (give or take a few un- or partially recognized states), each with a permanent population of citizens, and defined borders, and a government whose laws are respected within those borders.
But the world is not as orderly a place as the 193 different-colored blobs on a world map would suggest. There are patches of land or groups of people that don’t quite fit neatly into the country they’ve been assigned, creating ambiguity—a condition where political sovereignty and citizenship status are ill-defined or even contradictory. These pockets of ambiguity consist of cultural minorities who find themselves on the wrong side of colonial-era borders, or places like Hong Kong that, for historical reasons, have a significantly different political culture from the country they’re now a part of.
Governments don’t like ambiguity when it comes to their territory or citizenry. In his book Seeing Like a State, the anthropologist James Scott describes how modern states strive to make society “legible”: to “arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion.” This can involve “processes as disparate as the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the establishment of cadastral surveys and population registers, the invention of freehold tenure, the standardization of language and legal discourse, the design of cities and the organization of transportation.” Nomadic populations, indigenous groups that insist on maintaining their political sovereignty, semi-autonomous political communities, undocumented migrants—all pose a threat to the legibility of a state’s population.
A world of legible states with defined territories and populations is one where, as Hannah Arendt wrote, citizenship confers upon a person the “right to have rights.” If the state can deny or remove citizenship from a particular population—as groups from the Dominican Republic’s Haitians to Myanmar’s Rohingya have learned—it need not concern itself with their rights.
This desire for “legibility and simplification” is something all modern bureaucracies share. But in this era, governments have found they can use this desire to fuel an ethnic nationalist political project. By enforcing strict legibility and outlawing ambiguity, governments have a ready pretext to keep undesirable foreigners out, demote the status of minority groups, or end special protections for populations who enjoy a certain level of autonomy. This strategy may not be new. But it’s been widely embraced in our era by governments of very different political persuasions.
This dislike of ambiguity governs Donald Trump’s foreign policy. Liberal commentators often fret about the threat that Trump and other right-wing populist leaders pose to the postwar “rules-based international order.” But Trump and his cohort are obsessed with rules and order when it comes to national sovereignty, borders, and who gets to live within those borders. Trump has often argued that “If you don’t have Borders, you don’t have a Country!”
The Trump administration’s distrust of multilateral treaties, courts, and organizations is also evidence of a hostility toward international ambiguity—these entities entail a messy give-and-take of sovereignty between state governments and international institutions—as is the president’s reluctance to treat residents of U.S. territories like Puerto Rico as fully American.
Trump rarely misses an opportunity to criticize the Chinese government, but when it comes to the current showdown in Hong Kong, he has praised Chinese leader Xi Jinping for acting “responsibly,” echoed Beijing’s propaganda in describing the protests as “riots,” and argued that “China could stop [the protests] if they wanted.” To the extent he understands the situation at all, he seems to have little sympathy for the desire of a city to preserve its democratic freedoms or political autonomy.
Trump has also reportedly hinted that he believes Russian sovereignty over the Crimean Peninsula—annexed in defiance of international law in 2014—ought to be recognized.
I don’t think these stances can be explained merely by Trump’s much-discussed fondness for Benjamin Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping. The notion that the central government’s control over the contested regions should be made official, recognized, and unambiguous accords with his overall worldview.
This philosophy fails to recognize that a certain amount of ambiguity can be stabilizing in the absence of a political consensus. Take the president’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights last year, justified as, in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s words, “simply recognizing facts on the ground.” Trump similarly claimed that recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital was “the obvious, the plain reality” of the situation. U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman has suggested the administration might also look favorably on Israel formally annexing its settlements on the West Bank. This would no doubt also be justified as a mere official recognition of the “reality” of the situation or the “facts on the ground.”
Territorial ambiguity gets a bad rap. With one or two exceptions, every piece of the Earth’s landmass is claimed by at least one country. If a territory’s status is ambiguous, it’s usually because it’s claimed by more than one country—in the case of disputed regions like the Golan Heights or Crimea—or more than one entity that would like to be a country, in the case of separatist regions like Kurdistan or Catalonia. The ambiguity is the result of long-running, bitter, and often bloody conflict.
Over the course of reporting on unrecognized countries, tribal nations, virtual states—places where the view of the world as being divided into neat, mutually exclusive units breaks down—I’ve come to realize that ambiguity has its uses.
The redesignation of Kashmir, for example, has not only exacerbated tensions between nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan—it could imperil ongoing peace talks in Afghanistan as Pakistan contemplates moving troops from the Afghan border to the Kashmir frontier.
Taiwan may be the textbook case of geopolitical ambiguity. Since 1979, the United States—along with most other countries in the world—has not formally recognized the island’s independence but has unofficially, including with military aid. The U.S. maintains the American Institute in Taiwan—an embassy in all but name—and diplomats formally resign from the foreign service during the time they serve there. Taiwanese politicians, even those of a nationalist bent, have also been wary about formally calling for independence. This may all seem hypocritical and cowardly, but the arrangement has allowed Taiwan to maintain its de facto independence without provoking a potentially disastrous showdown with Beijing. (How long this arrangement will last under increasing Chinese pressure is an open question.)
Or consider a very different kind of territorial ambiguity: the European Union. Under the EU, countries agree to open their borders (contra Trump, they remain countries), share a currency, and delegate certain regulatory functions to a multinational governing body. These countries are, in fact, giving up some of the traditional characteristics of statehood, embracing a limited form of territorial ambiguity. This has provoked a furious backlash in some places (“Take back control” was the highly effective slogan of the Leave campaign during the 2016 Brexit referendum) but for an example of the benefits of this ambiguity, look no further than Northern Ireland.
The peace process that mostly brought an end to the territory’s brutal sectarian violence at the turn of the 21st century was aided in no small part by political ambiguity. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom but has some political powers devolved to its own assembly. Meanwhile, the membership of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland in the European Union deepened the economic integration of the two countries and made the Irish border less relevant. Locals still have preferences over whether they could be ruled from Dublin or continued to be ruled from London, but it simply matters less than it used to. All that may change in a month, when a “hard Brexit” could lead to the imposition of customs posts and border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic, a development many fear could imperil Northern Ireland’s fragile and hard-won peace.
Ambiguity is not good for places or for people in a world of borders. Undocumented populations are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Disputed territories can be flashpoints for conflict and suffer from international isolation. In an ideal world, we would all be in agreement on which territory belonged to which government, and every person would be a citizen of a country that respects her rights.
But the world we live in is not orderly. Unprecedented levels of forced migration around the world are creating growing populations of stateless people. More and more countries are selling passports to the highest bidder. Climate change is physically reshaping the world we live in and may wipe some countries off the map entirely.
Surviving, much less thriving, in such a world will require adaptability and a tolerance for a certain amount of ambiguity when it comes to sovereignty and citizenship. We may even have to redefine our closely held notions of what citizenship and national sovereignty look like.
That doesn’t seem to be the direction in which the world’s most powerful governments are headed. As these governments seek to rigidly define the territories they control and the people allowed to be in those territories, those caught in the middle will be the ones who suffer most.