everything you never guessed you wanted to know about borders

While today's nationalists try to elevate borders to almost sacred status, the truth of the matter is that borders change frequently, and our definition of nations is still very fresh.
great wall of china tower

If you listen to today’s populists, a nation’s borders are almost magical, sacrosanct places that define a nation’s history, culture, and people, indirectly echoing the famous fascist chant of “blood and soil” which pits the imagined deep roots of a permanent citizenry against the evil forces of nomadic immigrants and cosmopolitans. But the reality of our nations’ borders is far trickier and more complicated. Until the Peace of Westphalia, the very notion of a modern, sovereign state was just an ephemeral concept, and even then, it applied with conditions. In human civilization’s 6,000 years of existence, countries as we know them are just 372 years old and the world today is largely defined by borders less than a century old.

Of course, every country’s history is different. Canada’s borders were largely set in the early to mid-1800s, save for the one defined in 1903 after Alaska was purchased from Russia, same as those of the United States. Meanwhile, the majority of Africa’s current borders were drawn in the early 1900s and key Asian borders were mostly set in the middle of the last century. In all, 52% of all modern nation states were created since 1900, and almost 90% since 1800. To put it another way, the oldest recognized pub in Ireland is twice as old as almost all the borders we’re now being told defined the world’s heritage and history, putting a lot of grandiose nationalist claims into doubt when we consider just how often their nations changed shape.

the world’s nations are still in flux

And just because the last burst of border changes stopped in the 1960s doesn’t mean there haven’t been yet more changes still. In fact, according to official lists, the last 200 years saw some 206 changes, or one per year on average as countries broke apart, changed names, governments, and made small adjustments in regard to disputed islands and small territories. I’ve even personally lived through such a change, going to bed in the USSR and waking up in Ukraine. Although the nation itself existed, its borders mostly defined by the Russian Empire in the 1920s and after World War 2, some part of it or its entirety was subsumed by whatever it is that Russia called itself since 1667, emerging as its own entity again only in 1991.

In fact, if you just look at a famous clip from the American cartoon Animaniacs aired in 1993, note that the world map being shown still features the USSR but refers to it as Russia and omits the other 14 countries of the defunct union, including Ukraine. It also goes on to call Camboida by its old name Campuchia, dropped in 1989, and groups the six nations in the Balkans under the umbrella of Yugoslavia, which violently broke up by spring of 1992. Even by the time it was on TV, this educational little song missed some 21 border and name changes, which prompts the question of how often countries change. Thankfully, lists of nations with the dates they were officially recognized as sovereign states exist and they show some very interesting tidbits.

how old is a typical country?

Some three quarters of the nations as we know them today were only recognized after 1900 and of those, 57% came into existence after World War 2, which means that more than four out of five countries on today’s maps didn’t exist 75 years ago and the oldest of slightly more than a third are only going to mark their 60th birthdays this year. In fact, the average age of a country if we discard the just 22 states founded earlier than this past millennium is just 112.6 years. In contrast, those aforementioned ancient nations boast an impressive median age of over 3,115 since their roll call includes China, Egypt, India, Iran, and Greece. But they’re extreme outliers and despite existing for millennia, their borders still changed well into the 1960s.

The conclusion we can draw from this tsunami of statistics is that the modern world and its nations and territories is, arguably, at most 120 years old and features just a relative handful of longer-lived outliers created anywhere between a century a half to over five millennia ago. This is hardly the supposedly time immemorial so many nationalists and populists want to invoke in their speeches, trying to neatly sweep millennia of conquests, permeable borders, and mixing of cultures and people along key trade routes under the rhetorical rug. Borders, governments, and populations changed thousands of times since the dawn of city states and empires, and they underwent a paroxysm of changes once those empires vanished or merged.

are our borders ultimately meaningless?

Despite the relative youth of our modern borders and 8 in 10 of the world’s nations, the last thing we should assume is that these boundaries don’t matter because they absolutely do. To suspend enforcing them and open nations to all comers today would create so many problems and risks it would require a whole other article just to cover them. Suffice it to say that much of the modern world would be turned upside down without formal immigration systems and the nations in need of the most help will be functionally deserted and spiral into utter collapse. The idea of open borders just pretends to turn a wide range of cultural, economic, and historical problems into a geographic one with no thought to the consequences.

But all that said, we can conclude that borders are not as inviolate and permanent as today’s parade of xenophobic demagogues loves to tell us, and are very much abstract and malleable things like many key concepts in our civilization. If they don’t work for us, we can change them and negotiate better ones, and we need to stop pretending that human history isn’t one of constant change and migration as we mixed both ideas and genes along the way. Hell, we’ve been doing this since we interbred with Neanderthals, moved into their caves, and set out to explore Europe and Asia tens of thousands of years ago. The idea that most humans should no longer move around the world because we drew a line on a map is simply absurd.

how will borders look in the future?

Another important takeaway from these numbers is that it’s unlikely that borders will change an awful lot in the near future without some major geopolitical upheaval. If we look at both the ages of nations and their borders, then overlay them with historical events, we’ll find that most of the modern world is separated along boundaries created by the world wars and subsequent decolonization of Africa and parts of Asia. Likewise, the end of the Cold War and implosion of the final incarnation of the Russian Empire as the USSR shuffled around quite a few things. It’s hard to imagine similar spasms of border changes happening without something equally dire creating major, prolonged conflicts between superpowers and alliances.

That said, it’s equally unlikely borders will remain relatively static. As climate change drowns populated islands and entire island nations while triggering food shortages, disease outbreaks, and wars in fragile and failing states, countries will morph to deal with the consequences. There will be refugee crises battering post-industrial nations in waves, and it’s possible that the UN and other global bodies would need to step in to contain the fallout of existing problems and find long term solutions. One would expect borders to change in Oceania and parts of Africa and the Middle East. Beyond that point, we’d have to look into centuries ahead and assign a higher probability to events that are currently extremely unlikely.

One such idea involves a long running joke in West Coast circles in which California, Oregon, and Washington split off from the United States, British Columbia breaks off from Canada, and all of them join to form an entity known as Cascadia. Another version sees Canada annex the culturally similar American Pacific Coast, New England, and New York. Today both seem a tad absurd, much like Alberta’s “Wexit” campaign. But given enough time without the political divides in the U.S. and Canada being solved by younger generations, who knows what might happen? That’s the problem with trying to look into the future. The further out you set your sights, the more seemingly impossible things become more and more plausible.

# politics // borders / history / social commentary

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