A review of the book “Border Wars” by Klaus Dodds

Ever since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, we have seen an increasing dominance of the notion of the nation state in geo-politics. If you look at a globe or an atlas, every patch of land on the planet is claimed by (at least) one nation with neat black lines defining who owns what.

The problem is that mother Earth was not created to facilitate the tidy parcelling up of territory on political grounds. Mountains are not easily divided, rivers and lakes can change their shape and flow, and people of the same ethnicity or religion are often on different sides of the lines. Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and writes perceptively on all the myriad problems thrown up by borders.

Even where borders are accepted and well-defined, there are often massive difficulties in enforcing those borders with a growing industry of guards, walls and surveillance. Think of USA/Mexico with its 2,000 mile border, UK/continental Europe with channel crossings almost daily, North and South Korea with its DMZ. Then there are underground aquifers with many hundreds being trans-boundary and every country wanting supplies of water.

But, in many cases, borders are not universally accepted. Sometimes the issues go back to colonial days or the Second World War; in other cases, the break-up of the Soviet Union has created a host of disputes. Think of North and South Cyprus, Morocco/Western Sahara, Russia/Georgia, Russia/Ukraine, Israel/West Bank, China/Taiwan, China/India, India/Pakistan, all the disputes in the South China Sea. Seven nations lay claim to parts of Antarctica and more may join them.

Whether existing borders are accepted or disputed, nature is changing borders. This has always been happening with changing river flows, land slips and erosion, but climate change will have dramatic impacts with melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and drying rivers, lakes and aquifers. Some low-lying island nations – such as Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Maldives – could simply disappear.

As if all these problems were not headache enough, Dodds looks at ‘border’ issues beyond land: the high seas (where right of passage and fishing are issues), the sea bed (where security of communication cables and mining of mineral resources are issues), the outer space enclosing our globe (where access to favourable positions and security of satellites are issues), and even the moon and the planets.

It is a fascinating book. Dodds examines each of the cases mentioned in this review and explains the issues very clearly, but he has no new ideas for how these problems can be addressed more peaceably beyond development of existing UN and global treaties and greater support for more open borders.

He writes: “The myths of exclusive sovereignty and the fixed border are dangerous. We need to cultivate a radically different view of borders that is alive to the complex realities of earthly change and the likely mass migration of people in an era of intensifying climate change and conflicts”. Some chance in the current geo-political climate.


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