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What if one day international borders just melt?

From the EU to Isis, former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford takes a look at international borders around the globe and the various international crises surrounding them

 We in modern Europe (or at least the member states of the European Union) take international borders for granted. In continental Europe you can simply drive through them, waving your passport nonchalantly at a bored official. When citizens of EU member states arrive at British airports they need not even produce a passport if they have their national identity card.

Thus some people think that borders are less and less important. This in turn seems to signify politically (or even morally) that within the European Union so-called nation states are less and less important. As perhaps they are, with so many legally binding initiatives now emanating from EU institutions in Brussels.

Yet even in the European Union the border signs between countries still have enormous practical meaning: they tell you that you are crossing from one legal, normative order into another. The rules change. In a matter of metres you pass from French jurisdiction into Spanish or German jurisdiction. Many rules in Europe are now harmonised. But that does not mean that they are identical. Car-crash liability, divorce settlements, child custody issues, owning property, taxes, health and safety standards, employment rights – all these important areas of life and many more change massively depending on which side of a European border you’re on.

In short, borders really matter. They answer Lenin’s famous existential question of politics:  Kto kogo?  Who [does what to] whom? Who gives orders – and who takes orders? It follows that states really matter. A state represents how we know with almost microscopic precision where one national legal system ends and another begins.

Attentive readers of Diplomat will recall my piece in 2010 discussing territories that are not fully recognised by the international community as sovereign, independent states:

“Run a Google search for ‘end of the nation state’ and 62 million links appear, compared with a piffling 42 million links for ‘rise of the nation state’. All sorts of books and academic tracts argue that in today’s busy networked world those fuddy-duddy Westphalian ideas of both nations and states are dissolving.

Yet the odd thing is that life is moving in a different direction. Since 1990, no fewer than 33 new countries have emerged and joined the UN. Others are in the queue. Kosovo and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) are two countries that have achieved significant but not yet decisive international recognition – more than 60 states recognise Kosovo and more than 80 the SADR, but neither is yet close to full UN membership.”

Since that was written, Kosovo has pushed its international status rather successfully: it is now recognised by 110 out of 193 United Nations member states. But in the last year the rate at which new countries are recognising Kosovo has slowed again. Kosovo has won recognition from El Salvador, Tonga, Lesotho and Togo. But it has made no impact with big-hitter states such as China, India, Brazil, Russia, South Africa, Indonesia and many others who for one reason or another don’t accept the way in which Kosovo broke from Serbia.

Now a new, dismal precedent for changing international borders has appeared, namely Crimea. Russia has proclaimed that Crimea is now part of Russia. A handful of states with derisory human rights records have announced that they accept this annexation. Shame on them. A UN General Assembly resolution has overwhelmingly supported Ukraine’s position that Crimea remains part of Ukraine’s sovereign territory.

The Crimea/Ukraine problem is arguably the most dangerous crisis in Europe since the end of World War II. As Western governments see it, Russia has been deploying its army to attack a neighbouring country and founder UN member, using tactics and rhetoric and logic eerily reminiscent of the 1930s. Yet as bad as all this certainly is, it seems that the issues are conceptually clear and containable: sooner or later the crisis will be settled by a messy deal, more or less within familiar rules of international law and established practice.

What is happening in the Middle East is far beyond alarming in this sense. We see the fraying of the very idea of national rules as such. Syrians and Iraqis are seeing their state borders dissolving under ruthless attacks by various extremist groups, most significantly the ‘Islamic State’ formation.

Isis is like a lethal ideological Ebola virus, spreading and mutating and bringing something quite new to modern diplomacy: an organisation with leaders and followers who openly boast about their war crimes. Even Stalin, no slouch as a mass murderer, grasped that murdering some 30,000 Polish officers at Katyn needed covering up. He ordered a huge exercise in disinformation that echoed on down the decades until finally in 1990 Mikhail Gorbachev admitted what had happened. Isis want none of that namby-pamby furtive villainy. They fall over themselves to murder their prisoners live on YouTube.

However much territory and oil Isis manage to loot, it’s hard to see a ‘caliphate’ based on mass murder and carved by Isis from other states in the region winning even de facto international recognition. Its borders will be defined not by what it is, but what it isn’t. It will have no legitimacy or recognition. Its leaders will be hunted for war crimes. It will have no UN seat, no international telephone dialling code, no international air services, no international sports competitions, no free NGOs, no good hospitals, no respected universities and libraries. It will have nothing and invent nothing that makes life civilised and interesting, or offers a decent future to people under its sway.

Or maybe that’s not the point. Maybe what Isis represents is not the building of anything positive as we understand it, but the start of a new phase of generalised disintegration as modern states find themselves unable to cope.

It turns out that some of these Isis murderers are British. What if parts of London or other cities in the UK or in other countries start to be dominated by gangs of people who think like them, then start to act like them? How many people need to be in such gangs before the territory they control starts to look – and starts to be – a ‘no-go area’ for the police and other state authorities?

Once a state effectively loses control of some parts of its territory to local violent extremists, how long does it take for the mass of citizens to start to challenge state authority, if only because they fear for the results if the state can no longer guarantee equal rights and responsibilities for all within its borders?

The usual answer is to say that that can happen in a country like Syria that has been destroyed by civil war, but it can’t happen in Europe.  Why exactly can’t it happen in today’s Europe, if enough serious things start to go wrong simultaneously and liberal democracy lacks the tools and toughness to protect itself?

The basic drama we in Europe and North America now face is that hundreds of millions of poor people in Africa, Asia and the Middle East who previously have had few ways to express themselves in any organised way now have a voice, and can move around and create intricate support networks thanks to cheap information technology.

As the United States of America is finding on its southern borders, tens of thousands of young people, including children, can appear as if from nowhere, demanding to be let into the country and then stay for as long as they choose. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic thousands of Africans are crossing the Mediterranean in little boats every week. Borders for such people don’t matter much. They want to go where they like, to look for work and better healthcare. If that means crossing state borders illegally, so be it.

What if international borders around the world are now much less robust than they look and we assume? What in fact is stopping a new brazen ‘grab what you can’ attitude emerging in many places simultaneously, at a much faster rate than existing state structures can respond sensibly to? And if it does emerge, what’s to stop it? Conventional weapons and tactics are useless against more or less spontaneous, bottom-up, networked mass challenges to existing ruling elites and their beloved rules.

World Wars I and II were conflicts with global consequences arising from European power struggles. But there was at least a clear context, involving thematic rivalries between established powers: something like the Crimea crisis is now. Could Isis represent the start of a completely different World War III, a crazed free-for-all in which established authority and international borders just melt away?


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