The World

A Refreshing Way to Think About Border Wars and Debates

In a fascinating new book, the author has a knack for original perspectives and observations about familiar, intransigent problems.

Demonstrators protest with signs and megaphones in front of a line of police in helmets and holding shields
Demonstrators protest against mass deportations at the U.S.-Mexico border, in the surroundings of the National Palace in Mexico City, on Tuesday. Claudio Cruz/AFP via Getty Images

In a recent interview with the Economist, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was asked how he balances the imperative of protecting as many Ukrainian lives as possible with his government’s stated policy of retaking all Russian-occupied territory, an effort that could entail losing countless more of those lives. Zelensky rejected the premise:

The fact that the people withstood [the invasion] shows that they have a simple truth, and it resides in their family, in their land, in their flag. When they defend the land, it is not something abstract; it is real, it is part of it. Defending the land and the territory means only one thing: to protect life and purpose.

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In a moment of reading serendipity, I listened to a recording of Zelensky’s interview just as I was reading the Scottish historian James Crawford’s beguiling new travelogue/history/meditation The Edge of the Plain: How Borders Make and Break Our World. Crawford’s reporting and research took place almost entirely before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and he refers to it only in passing, but it’s hard not to think of the war, and the notion that life and territory could be inseparable, when you encounter a statement like “what is a border, if not a story? It is never simply a line, a marker, a wall, an edge. First, it is an idea […] It can only ever be made. It can only ever be told.

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The war in Ukraine is a war over territory that is also a war between stories. Russian President Vladimir Putin, having apparently emerged from a COVID-isolation deep dive into the Kremlin archives, puts forth a narrative that Ukraine and Russia share a common “historical and spiritual space” that renders modern, internationally recognized nation-state borders irrelevant.

The notion that Ukraine is an “artificial” country was already historically dubious, and ironically, Putin’s violation of Ukraine’s borders appears to have done more to solidify Ukraine’s national identity—its story, that is—than generations of Ukrainian nationalists have managed.

The war broke out after a period of time during which, as Crawford documents, borders moved back to the center of the global conversation. An unprecedented spike in global migration; the Brexit referendum; the rise of a crop of nationalist leaders, including Donald Trump, who repeatedly argued that without borders “you don’t have a country”; a pandemic that resulted in the hasty throwing up of hard borders within countries as well as between them: All made it clear that despite the hype of previous decades, globalization and the internet were not about to render nation-states and national boundaries irrelevant. This doesn’t seem likely to change. For all that Joe Biden’s administration is a repudiation of Trump’s, he has also embraced restrictive border enforcement policies and economic protectionism. Borders are here to stay.

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Crawford, a prolific writer and broadcaster in the U.K., endeavors to trace the history of borders back to the beginning. The title comes from the inscription on a pillar recently rediscovered in the British Museum’s collection that is believed to be the oldest surviving boundary marker: It separated the territories of the states of Lagash and Umma in present-day Iraq. The pillar’s text also includes the first known use of the phrase “no man’s land.” Tying the past to present in a later chapter, Crawford graffitis the phrase, in ancient Sumerian text, on the separation barrier in East Jerusalem.

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After examining the origins of borders, Crawford takes a global tour of their present configuration. (As if to underline the book’s theme, he was frustratingly unable to visit all the case studies in the book due to pandemic-era travel restrictions, though to his credit as a writer, this doesn’t hamper the narrative much.) Some of the most familiar examples are included. Crawford takes in the U.S.-Mexico border, the contested Israeli-Palestinian border, and Melilla, one of two Spanish enclaves surrounded by Morocco that are the last remaining European-controlled territories in continental Africa and have, in recent years, become a target for migrants seeking entry into Europe. Even in this well-trod territory, Crawford has a knack for finding original perspectives and observations.

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One of the refreshing aspects of Crawford’s approach is that rather than leaning primarily on historians or political activists as his main sources, he gravitates toward artists who incorporate borders into their work. We meet Hans Ragnar Mathisen, a Sámi artist who creates maps that both celebrate the Nordic indigenous group’s culture and question officially accepted geographies; Marcos Ramirez and David Taylor, who erected dozens of obelisks marking the short-lived 1819 border between the U.S. and Mexico; and Marco Ferrari, whose work documents how the Italian-Austrian border is literally moving as a result of climate change–driven glacial melt. Fans of Thomas Pynchon will enjoy an extended riff on the 1997 novel Mason & Dixon and its historical subjects.

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Crawford’s depiction of the modern reality of borders is often very dark, never more so than in exploring the work of anthropologist Jason de Leon, who describes his work as an “ethnography of death” based on study of the artifacts (and sometimes bodies) left by migrants attempting to cross the Sonoran desert of Arizona. And plenty of Crawford’s sources argue that borders are merely artificial constructs that don’t correspond with human or environmental realities.

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But it would be too simple to suggest the book merely condemns or dismisses borders. Those who imagine a world without borders may be pacifists in the John Lennon mold, but they’re just as likely to be imperialists.

Crawford quotes from Virgil’s Aeneid, in which Rome is designated by the god Jupiter himself as “an empire without limit” in either “space or time.” That borders are “artificial” is a concept that can be used by progressives to advocate for the rights of migrants, but also—as Putin has shown—by atavistic dictators to justify invading their neighbors.

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In her 2019 book, Democracy May Not Exist, which similarly looks to the ancient world for answers to contemporary political conundrums, activist and filmmaker Astra Taylor describes feeling herself “cringe” at political philosopher Wendy Brown’s basically commonsensical argument that democracy can only work in a community that is defined in its membership and, if it’s a territorial state, within the area under its control: “To have a democracy there has to be a we. You have to know who we the people are,” Brown argues. Without boundaries, any political community is either incoherent or absolutist.

In the view held by many liberals and progressives, then, borders are a necessary evil, or for radicals, the best available option until a better mode of political organization comes along.

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Crawford suggests that maybe we can do better. His book ends with a discussion of the so-called “Great Green Wall,” an ambitious project to combat desertification in Africa’s Sahel—one of the world’s most politically unstable regions and one of the most threatened by climate change. The first idea for the wall, which was embraced by several governments and may have originated with Burkina Faso’s folk-hero Marxist president Thomas Sankara, was for a literal wall of trees  to hold back the encroaching Sahara. This was not a particularly practical plan and the literal wall has evolved into a more holistic approach to combat desertification through careful water use and land cultivation techniques, but the moniker has stuck.

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Crawford quotes a U.N. official working on the wall project, saying, “Today the word ‘wall’ somehow has negative connotations. But we try to explain it as a wall that doesn’t divide people but unites them.”

If this sentiment feels familiar to readers of The Edge of the Plain, it’s because it echoes an argument made several chapters and 2,000 years earlier by the Greek orator Dio Chrysostom who also argued, in Crawford’s paraphrase, that borders could be “tools of unity, not division […] like ties of blood, of marriage, the physical manifestations of kinship drawn across the landscape.”

A world in which borders serve a purpose like this seems pretty distant, but Crawford seems to suggest that if all borders are stories, we could start by telling better ones. Borders, after all, may be the places where we are divided. But they’re also the places where we touch.