In northern Vermont in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, where I grew up in a town whose name was French but where everyone spoke English, the nearby Canadian border was not imposing. Dirt roads crossed the line where New England’s maples become Quebec’s, with no signs to warn passing hikers when they were under foreign trees. On the main highway north to Montreal were a pair of what looked like tollbooths, adorned with flags stitched with a big red leaf or stars and stripes. And when bored customs officers asked you to halt your vehicle, the inquisition to which you were subjected—at least if your Saab or pickup truck bore Vermont plates—was perfunctory. Documents often weren’t required. You could expect to be asked two questions: where you were headed and if you had any liquor.
There were benefits, in high school, to living near a province more libertine than our wholesome state. On Monday mornings, louche upperclassmen sometimes turned up in the cafeteria with tales of having dashed north, over the weekend, to where the drinking age was eighteen, for a case of Molson Ice. But the pull of difference was matched with a sense, at least as strong, that the border didn’t so much divide two nations as amble over a contiguous region. Sure, people on our side of the line pronounced Gallic place names in mountain English. (Calais sounded like “callous.”) But our shared climate and past helped feed a sense, among humans who also shared the complexion of February snow (this no doubt helped), that we had more in common with one another than with citizens of our vast nations who lived in far-off Vancouver or Phoenix.
Such cross-border ties are extremely common, of course, among the many millions of people who live near one of the hundreds of boundaries on earth. Most of the oldest borders date from a couple of centuries ago; many count their age in decades. And the ease with which many people straddled them was until very recently exemplified along the now notorious gran linea to our south, which before the nineteen-nineties neither the United States nor Mexico saw fit to mark with anything more forbidding, along most of its length, than an occasional rock pile in the desert. In a part of the continent once thought too dry to cultivate, that porosity was no less vital for Hispanic ranchers and Native Americans than for the builders of what became an agricultural juggernaut, in California and across the U.S. West, which has long depended on willing workers from the south.
Now Donald Trump’s dream of “sealing” that border has pulled it into the center of our national life. But as the scholar Matthew Longo underscores in “The Politics of Borders: Sovereignty, Security and the Citizen after 9/11,” although the policies that Trump is pursuing may stand out for their cruelty, they aren’t nearly so much of a departure as we may like to think—either from aims held by his predecessors, or from larger trends in how borders have been changing. In fact, Trump has revealed a new consensus among our political classes—and among hundreds of nations on earth—about what borders are, and what they’re for.
For most of the twentieth century, the “hard boundaries” that did exist were militarized for actually military reasons. These included contested frontiers like Kashmir and a few Cold War hot spots, like the D.M.Z. crossing the Korean peninsula, where opposing armies and world views stared each other down through rolls of concertina wire. Now such scenes are replicated along borders dividing countries whose shared system of government is democracy and whose armies are at peace. This is seen in the more than two thousand miles of heavily guarded barbed wire that India has erected between itself and Bangladesh; or the electrified fence with which South Africa confronts Zimbabwe; or the potato fields that Hungary has laced with menacing barriers to keep out refugees. Since the start of this century, dozens of borders have been transformed from mere lines on a map into actual, deadly features of the landscape. These are places where, as the geographer Reece Jones notes in his book “Violent Borders,” thousands of people each year are now “losing their lives simply trying to go from one place to another.”
The once obscure field of “border studies” has won new impetus from the global refugee crisis. But a surge of recent scholarship, of which Longo’s book is perhaps the standout, makes clear that there’s much to be gained from zooming out to examine the history and present of borders everywhere. The ways that borders are evolving in the twenty-first century, in step with changing technology, have profound implications for the future of human rights and international relations—and for the vision of sovereignty that’s shaped both since the first governments embraced the principle of jurisdiction over a strictly defined area of earth.
Many ancient cultures espoused ties to particular landscapes and the resources or fishing holes they contained. But for several millennia after our species’s first city-states flourished along the Tigris, few such seats of political power presumed to identify precisely where, in the no man’s lands between their cities’ walls, one’s realm ended and another’s began. This continued as certain of those city-states, later on, became empires. When, in the second century A.D., Rome’s legionaries lodged a ribbon of limestone across Britannia’s north, they cared little if Scottish shepherds ambled south with their sheep or hopped Hadrian’s Wall. That boundary, like the famous Ming-dynasty battlements outside Beijing that we call the Great Wall of China, was a military installation—erected to slow invaders from adjoining lands, yes, but also to project power outward.
The builders of these walls never presumed their domains’ edges to be anything more than provisional; they were less concerned about preventing people from crossing or inhabiting their realms than with maintaining access, when they did, to their taxes and toil. The Mayans may have walked the fields and forests, in Meso-America, to mark where one of their ahawlels’ lands ended. But Malaysia’s negeri city-states—in which rulers maintained firm control over the river systems but made little effort to control the hinterlands beyond their banks—were more indicative of a planet whereon, until several hundred years ago, few people conceived of political territory as exclusive real estate. As medieval fiefs evolved into early states in Europe, their edge-lands were still comprised of what their minders called “marches,” and what we came to call frontiers—contested zones where who was in charge, and whether laws obtained at all, was often in doubt.
The key moment in the transition to what scholars call the modern state system arrived in the middle of the seventeenth century, with the famous treaty that ended the Thirty Years’ War. The Peace of Westphalia was signed by a hundred and nine principalities and duchies and imperial kingdoms, all of which agreed, in 1648, that states were now the only institutions allowed to engage in diplomacy and war, and that they would also now be accorded the right to “absolute sovereignty” over their territory. There’s a reason that the great majority of political maps we’d recognize as such date from this era: Westphalia gave states a vested interest in laying claim, with the help of the mapmakers they employed, to jurisdiction over a defined patch of sod. This led to some beautiful maps—and implanted in people’s minds, for the first time, shapes like the one we now associate with France. But few efforts were made to make those maps’ borders clear to inhabitants. The question of whose sovereignty certain shepherds lived under, in notoriously liminal zones like the Pyrenees or Alsace, would remain murky well into the era when sovereignty began to be transferred from kings to laws.
As the Harvard historian Charles S. Maier recounts in “Once Within Borders,” a factor that helped change this, in the nineteenth century, was the spread of new technologies—the telegraph, the railroad—that enabled central governments, even in countries as vast as the United States, to think that they might actually be able to govern all of their territory. Another was a series of increasingly bloody wars in Europe and elsewhere that culminated, between 1914 and 1918, in a conflict that saw humankind kill off some sixteen million of its members. Near the end of the First World War, Woodrow Wilson proposed that the international community might prevent such horrors if it followed his Fourteen Points, which became central, in January, 1919, to the Paris Peace Conference. Key among them was the principle that some of the globe’s borders be redrawn “along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.”
This vision was born from a war fuelled by the desire of Bosnians and others for self-rule. It also reflected an idea—that any national group should aspire to and defend a sovereign bit of land—that’s animated countless struggles since, for “self-determination” or its opposite. But this idea also had its drawbacks. One was the danger, as another world war soon made clear, of imagining a map of Europe that furnished for each of its language groups what the German geographer Friedrich Ratzel termed a Lebensraum, or “living space.” Another was that Wilson’s dictum pointedly did not extend beyond Europe—and especially not to Africa, whose vast acreage had only recently been carved into territories. Those territories were anything but “clearly recognizable” to the colonial owners who tacked a big map of the continent to the wall of a Berlin ballroom, in 1884, and drew their borders with scant regard for the language groups and ancestral homelands they crossed.
Such are the tortured roots of our current international system. The United Nations’ expectation that each of its member states respect the territorial sovereignty of its neighbors has formed, since 1948, the core of its efforts to maintain world peace. That most of the U.N.’s members have bought into this notion is why, in the late twentieth century, many of the world’s borders came to resemble the United States and Canada’s. In the nineties, there was a brief turn from this project, as celebrants of globalization hailed a borderless world augured by, for example, the European Union’s opening of internal frontiers. Now that vision has collapsed, eroded by mass migration and anxiety. For scholars like Longo, we have entered an era of “bordering” without precedent.
What changed? For Longo, the answer, in large part, is 9/11. Since the attacks in New York, he argues, there has been a profound shift in how borders are conceived, installed, and sustained. The most obvious change has been a physical escalation. Over the past eighteen years, for example, the U.S Border Patrol grew to employ twenty thousand agents, becoming the nation’s largest enforcement agency. Throughout the world, anxiety about terrorism has helped drive a trend toward states erecting boundaries to deny entry to potential bad actors. It has seen one prominent U.N. member state, Israel, build some four hundred and seventy miles of barriers, through the territory of its Palestinian neighbors, whose purpose is “security” but which in effect seizes land not regarded by the U.N. as its own. These developments have occurred at a time when the number of people worldwide who’ve been displaced by violence is at an all-time high—some seventy million, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Many of those refugees hail from a region destabilized by the United States’ invasion of Iraq, in 2003, and its War on Terror. In the early two-thousands, Mumbai, Madrid, Bali, and London experienced their own terrorist attacks, and, as Longo details in his book—which is distinguished by his efforts to actually speak with the officials responsible for executing the ideas that he’s interested in—those countries gladly followed the United States’s lead. Dozens if not hundreds of states around the world turned questions of customs and immigration enforcement, once left to anonymous bureaucrats, into pressing matters of national defense.
Not a few scholars of politics and law, in those years, began to try to understand what was happening to the world’s borders. Perhaps the most prescient was Wendy Brown, whose book “Walled States, Waning Sovereignty,” was published in 2010. Brown noted the burgeoning popularity of walled borders, years before Trump’s rise, and predicted that nativist politicians would continue to build boundaries that, she argued in a preface to the 2016 edition, would “not merely index, but accelerate waning state sovereignty.” What she meant was that nation-states were reacting to their dwindling ability to control the movement of information, money, and humans over their territory by building “visual emblem[s] of power and protection that states increasingly cannot provide.” But by doing so, they only highlighted their lack of control, enriching the traffickers and syndicates that have profited from having to find new ways to get their desperate clients and wares, obstacles be damned, where they want to go.
About the latter point, Longo can’t disagree. But he has a different argument to make about what “bordering” tells us about the future of states. Sovereignty, to his mind, hasn’t so much waned as transformed. Governments today have never known so much about the people they govern, or been more determined to know more about those entering their territory. For these same reasons, they’ve come to share the once indivisible responsibility for policing their edges. This is the second plank of the post-9/11 shift: with the hardening of physical barriers came the rise, unprecedented in history, of cross-border collaboration in the name of surveillance. This obtained even in the most neutral of boundaries. In the summer of 2003, I returned home from a visit to Canada and was asked for the first time, by an officer dressed in the stiff new duds of the Department of Homeland Security, to hand over my passport. I can still recall being struck, as he scanned its barcode into a computer, by a thought that now seems quaint: the government was endeavoring to track and store data, accessible in real time, about every time any person left or entered the U.S.
Borders were once where sovereignty ended, or began. Now they’re places where states partner with their neighbors to manage and monitor who and what moves between them. This trend toward “co-bordering”—the joint management of overlapping jurisdictions—is a momentous change, Longo writes. It’s also a product of our era, in which national defense has become a matter less of confronting rival states than of working out more efficient ways to, in the words of one Pentagon official, “magnify our focus down to the individual person level.” At the U.S.-Mexico border, one U.S. official says, this means working with his Mexican counterparts to build a “layered detection system that focuses on risk-based screening, enhanced targeting and information sharing.” Another puts it this way: “The wider we make our borders, the more effective we’ll be.” The quote neatly summates what Longo calls the trend to “thick” borders, witnessed around the world.
In the U.S., these trends have been formalized in treaties to which we’re now party with both Mexico (the 21st Century Border Initiative, signed in 2010) and Canada (the Beyond the Border agreement, from 2011), which allow for joint surveillance and policing hundreds of miles to either side of where the respective countries meet. The agreements also foster more electronic forms of coöperation: the building of “inter-operable” databases that contain biometric and biographical data for the hundreds of millions of people who call the continent home or have visited its shores. In a 2012 report, D.H.S. put it tersely: “Our vision for the northern border cannot be accomplished unilaterally.” The fact that Canadian Mounties are now empowered, with cause, to board an American vessel off the coast of Maine suggests a rather different vision of sovereignty than the one conjured by “America First.”
Europe is even further ahead. The E.U.’s member states haven’t merely banded together to head off migrants—whose fingerprints whatever E.U. state they land in is rule-bound to collect. They’ve also made data on the inhabitants of the Schengen Area, which lacks border checks, available to one another. Across the sea in North Africa, Tunisia and Egypt have been pushing for regional border-security arrangements to confront continued instability in Libya. The member nations of the East African Community—Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan—now maintain shared patrols around Lake Victoria. Even India and China, never models of trusting bonhomie, have since 2013 had an accord in place “to improve security along their 4,056-kilometer border . . . [and increase] cooperation on a military-to-military basis.”
As in the nineteenth century, technology is what has enabled the state to maintain—or aspire to—control. In recent months, a few U.S. cities banned the use of facial recognition on their streets. But an arguably bigger story about the same technology—by which F.B.I. and ICE agents have been making extensive use of millions of driver’s-license photos culled from state D.M.V.s—highlights how our laws will struggle to keep pace with overreach. (Another example can be glimpsed in the D.H.S.’s push to legalize and expand its officers’ practice, recently revealed, of collecting DNA from detained migrants.) In China, facial recognition is already being used on a mass scale. And in Xinjiang, the home region of the oppressed Uyghur minority, the state has even taken to installing an app on the smartphones of everyone who resides in or enters the region. The app transmits to Communist Party police users’ private habits, as well as their daily travels around the Internet.
Data has already made tech companies rich, and its strategic import to modern governments is plain. “Data is the new oil,” one Brazilian researcher explains. “Every government has become dataholic.” This emerges, in Longo’s account, as the reason that borders, quite apart from their use for the staging of populist or authoritarian dramas, have become so important: they’re where it’s legal for the government to capture the information that its bureaucracies covet. There was a time when you had to commit a crime, or be suspected of committing one, to have your fingerprints and photograph taken by an officer of the state. Now all you need to do is take a trip.
For many scholars, the solution to all this lies in addressing the violent inequality that’s pushed a quarter billion people to leave their countries for a better life. This, for anti-capitalist academics like Reece Jones, would entail some familiar-sounding steps. The most prominent is open borders—one of those odd issues where, less for moral than for macroeconomic reasons, libertarian and left-wing positions congrue. Lifting limits on migration has been espoused by writers as divergent in outlook as the Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley, the author of the 2008 book “Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders,” and Suketu Mehta, whose important new book “This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto” cites the same strong evidence: more immigrants means more jobs. In rich countries where productivity is declining as fast as the birth rate, Mehta insists, “the immigrant armada that is coming to your shores is actually a rescue fleet.”
But even if we begin to understand this, the main reason that hard borders aren’t going anywhere, Longo argues, has nothing to do with either economics or populism. It has to do with technology’s still-growing role in what nation-states do. In 1975, Michel Foucault famously identified what he called the “oldest dream of the oldest sovereign,” the panopticon: that circular prison whose sight lines were such that a warden at its center could keep tabs—or pretend to—on every subject in his realm. Now even the world’s most liberal governments have tools for gathering information that would have made the Stasi blush. Governments controlled by data, rather than vice versa, begin to process people as “readable texts” rather than as citizens. Borders, in turn, become the places in which those bureaucracies can most easily produce the “data double” that we’ve all become. Longo underscores what this means. “A central aim of this book,” he writes, “has been to identify the grand strategic shift away from nation-states and toward individuals. But what if this foretells the end of the individual too, now at the expense of the sub-individual, a subject composed of data points?”
It’s a troubling suggestion, not least because of the stark divide that’s already emerged between countries willing to share those data points and those that aren’t. This digital “firewall,” invoked by several of Longo’s sources, excludes anyone whose government doesn’t have the capacity or will to issue passports whose chips and barcodes possess their holders’ vital information. It threatens to turn humans without data, in a word, into humans without rights. With rich countries now admitting foreign nationals based on how much they “trust” the data attached to their passport, such divides will only further inflame the perceived split between nations that have joined modernity and those outside it.
To explain what this all portends, Longo turns to another hazy episode from history that Foucault used to illuminate his theories of modern society. It involves the moment when many medieval towns were spurred by rapid growth, in the eighteenth century, to do away with their walls—losing their ability to down their gates at night and to monitor, during the day, entries and exits. This change, in Foucault’s account, introduced to those towns a new anxiety about vagrants and outsiders. The shift gave birth to modern policing; armed guards turned their gaze from the horizon to the streets below them. The question for the sovereign state, then as now, wasn’t whether or not to have walls—it was where to put them. The answer, in the centuries since, has evolved with shifts in ideology and geopolitics and technology alike. But the conclusion reached by our republic and most nation-states today, whether spurred by populist strongmen or their own bureaucracies’ needs, about whether to wall their territories’ edges or more aggressively surveil what they contain, is plain: do both. In our new age of “bordering,” the border is drawing nearer, all the time, to the edge of the body itself.