We were promised a world without borders: jeux sans frontières, not to mention médecins and much else. In 1985 five European states signed the Schengen Agreement, which abolished border checks between them. In 1990 the Japanese business school professor Kenichi Ohmae published The Borderless World, in praise of global supply chains. In 1996 John Perry Barlow wrote his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, addressed to the “governments of the industrial world, you weary giants of flesh and steel”. He told them defiantly: “Cyberspace does not lie within your borders.”
Just over two decades later, borders are back. In his speech last week to the United Nations general assembly, Donald Trump was unequivocal: “If we aspire to the approval of history, then we must fulfil our sovereign duties to the people we faithfully represent. We must protect our nations, their interests and their futures. We must reject threats to sovereignty, from the Ukraine to the South China Sea. We must uphold respect for law, respect for borders, and respect for culture, and the peaceful engagement these allow.”
“As president of the United States,” he said, “I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always, and should always, put your countries first.” Like Trump’s reference to the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, as “Rocket Man” and his threat to “totally destroy” Kim’s country, this was calculated to appal the people Steve Bannon calls “globalists”. Yet Trump’s assertion of national sovereignty was one of the few lines in the speech that won applause.
The world is not in a globalist mood. Brexit is about reasserting sovereignty, above all over immigration, even if (as Theresa May’s Florence speech made clear) extricating the United Kingdom from the European Union is easier said than done. Angela Merkel will be re-elected as German chancellor today, but her party’s share of the vote will almost certainly be reduced, mainly because she lost control of Germany’s borders two years ago. And Trump clings to his election promise to build a wall along the US–Mexican border, as well as to exclude from the United States the citizens of mainly Muslim countries associated with terrorism.
European elites sneer compulsively at Trump, but polls show that majorities of their citizens would support a similar ban on Muslim immigration into the EU. Meanwhile, the same European elites are ramping up their efforts to tax and regulate the principal beneficiaries of the borderless world, the giant tech companies of Silicon Valley.
Yet when you reflect for a moment on the “back to borders” movement, you see how strange the world is. More than 36% of the world’s population live in just two countries, China and India, each with a billion-plus population. A quarter (26%) live in 11 countries with populations in the hundreds of millions. And another third live in 75 countries with populations in the tens of millions. In other words, 95% of all people live in fewer than 90 countries. Yet the United Nations has 193 members. Among its most recent recruits are Timor-Leste (pop 1.3m) and Montenegro (629,000).
Why is this? Why do the Kurds not yet have a nation state with borders of their own, despite numbering up to 45m? Why do the Catalans not? Tomorrow Iraqi Kurdistan will vote on independence from Iraq. A week from today, Catalonia will vote on independence from Spain. Neither poll is seen as legitimate by the states from which Kurds and Catalans would secede. Yet if the tiny Pacific island of Nauru (pop 11,359) is a sovereign state, what is the argument against an independent Kurdistan or Catalonia?
Or what about the Rohingya, the Muslim minority in Burma whose plight has attracted the world’s attention, leading to a sustained media campaign against the Nobel laureate and state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi? Would her critics cheer if she proclaimed the independence of Rohingyastan (a country as likely to come into existence as “Nambia”, the African state invented by President Trump last week)?
The explanation for all these anomalies is history. As the Harvard economist Alberto Alesina has argued, if country size were determined by either economic rationality or the democratic preferences of national communities, the map of the world would look completely different. But that is not the way history works. Small countries can attain independence where the strategic stakes are low (remember Henry Kissinger’s joke about Chile as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica”). Otherwise, in the immortal words of Thucydides’s Melian dialogue, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.
A hundred years ago, as the idea of a League of Nations was taking shape in his mind, President Woodrow Wilson naively assumed that a world based on national self-determination rather than imperialism would be a stable world. It turned out otherwise. In Europe and the Middle East, populations were not distributed in homogeneous blocks but in patchwork quilts of religion, language and ethnicity. Trying to create nation states in Europe paved the way for the Second World War, not least because it legitimised the vision of a Greater Germany, uniting all German speakers and excluding all “alien” races, that inspired the Austrian Adolf Hitler. The strong did what they could.
The modern world order is not fair. There are nearly as many Indians as Chinese, but only China is one of the five permanent members of the UN security council. There are more Germans than French or British citizens, yet it is France and Britain that are members of the “P5”, along with the two superpowers of the last century, America and Russia. Like the five great powers that dominated Europe after the Congress of Vienna, the permanent members owe their privileged status to history: to past victories, or past alliances that compensated for defeat.
Nevertheless, the security council has yet to impose its will on North Korea (pop 25m). Last week’s tough talk — Rocket Man retorted by calling Trump a “mentally deranged US dotard” — took the world another step closer to a day of reckoning. Financial sanctions are now squeezing Pyongyang. The North Koreans are threatening to detonate a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific. The other members of the P5 are waking up to the possibility that Trump has a real, if risky military option and is capable of using it.
In the final analysis, borders are a function of power. If you can’t defend them, they are just dotted lines. The Kim dynasty’s calculation has been that nukes are the ultimate border guards. We shall soon find out if that calculation was correct. If so, many more states will want them. If not, we shall be back in the 19th century, when the great powers played their Great Game with everyone else’s borders.