Rhetoric of a Borderless World

Suchitra Vijayan annd Michael Brooks*


Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres in his book New Middle East argued that in a world of ballistic missiles (and now drones) which target people with ease across thousands of miles, there is no longer any significance in the existence of localized land boundaries.

This weaponized view of shrinking space and the meaninglessness of borders became a common place in social and economic punditry following communications theorist Manuel Castell's 2001 book. He states "the space of flows . . . links up distant locales around shared functions and meanings ... and fast transportation corridors, while isolating and subduing the logic of experience embodied in the space of places". Put simply, borders are shrinking, and technology is enabling new forms of capital flow and connection. It became the anthem of new age punditry, which proclaimed that the world was flat. In the height of its fervour, the nation-state was referred to as the `nostalgic fiction'. A world filled with seamless travellers moving with purpose across global terminals, mobile technologies opening new business opportunities, and global institutions replacing borders with market growth and technological progress.

This utopian vision is myopic. Borders remain significant, in that they have become more permeable to the movement of goods, people, and information. But most of the world's people live in closed worlds, `trapped by the lottery of their birth'.

The Nation state is not "withering away". Julian Minghi, in 1963, famously said boundaries 'are perhaps the most palpable political geographic phenomena'. This observation remains valid, fifty years later. Humans have continued to produce and reproduce boundaries. Fragmentation resulting from self-determination has resulted in an increase, rather than decrease, in the number of new states and boundaries. Since 2000, the world has produced East Timor, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo and most recently South Sudan. The constantly stalled Middle East Peace Process is also built on the centrality that borders bring about new lines of separation and physical barriers, as conflicting nations retreat into their own territorial compartments, rather than shared spaces. Therefore, the world of cultural and economic flows is concurrently also a world of structural transformation that creates walls and hostile borders.

With the exception of the European Union, whose open borders are stunning example of its relative political and economic success (a success threatened by austerity) most "borderless" market expansions have not radically different ease of movement for citizens and the enhanced political openness associated with open borders in political discourse. In the Middle East, the political uprisings, civil wars, and persistent political crisis are rooted in the remnants of colonial maps and borders.

Fawcett, in 1918, provocatively said, The boundary is the place of intercourse with the foreigner. Yet, State efforts remains focused on defining who the foreigner is and who to let in. Territorial borders are patrolled in the name of the state, which continues to represent the citizens within those borders. The strategic role of land boundaries has also raised questions concerning the traditional security discourse. The World is not flat, it is fenced, floodlighted, and landmined. In our own back yard are effects of the policy of unprecedented militarization, of what the Bush administration termed, "Terrorist borders" on a global scale. Migration became a part of the mainstream political discourse and gained more prominence after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Migration became identified as an existential threat to the State, which required emergency measures by the state.

The perennial challenges of citizenship, sovereignty, identity and governance are still very much alive in the "borderless world." The Borderlands Project takes India's many borders as a point of focus, but the projects has implications for every region dealing with these deep and persistent problems. The South Asian border regions are powerful examples of how the confluence of historical, cultural, political, and economic influences shape modern experience. While the dominant global narrative of "Brand India" of the past decade has focused on India's rapid growth and sophisticated technology sector, its border regions remain some of the most political challenging, humanly varied, and economically tumultuous regions in the modern world system. Arbitrary lines on a map have deep symbolic, cultural, historical and religious, often contested, meanings for social communities.

Borders of India are largely studied within the context of conflict, separation, and partition as contrasted with peace, contact, and bridges. This is all important in as far as it goes, but borders are also places of art, distinct forms of expressions, and creative means of generating bottom up solutions to the tensions in border zones. At a recent panel discussion on the Borderland Project held at the Indian consulate in New York City, we brought together several people from unique vantage points to explore the many different borders that circle India, and the possibility that through gaining a deeper understanding of the narratives and experiences that shape realities on the ground, we could move towards finding humane and durable solutions.

The goal does not need to be a "borderless world" that only applies to a restricted group, but instead as Fawzie Naqvi, the Vice President of the Soros Foundation Fund, put it "we need to create humane borders." Borders, even if they remain with us can be humanized and reinvented. The stakes are high and the uncertainties are many, but by acknowledging the extent to which borders still define so many of our lives, we can think about creating better ones, with humanity and morality.

You can hear a segment from the Panel discussion here, with participating panelists:
Suchitra Vijayan, Writer and Political analyst and creator of The Borderlands Project, Rahaab Allana curator of the Alkazi Foundation for Arts in New Delhi, Fawzia Naqvi Vice President, Soros Economic Development Fund, Vikram Gandhi, filmmaker and a journalist, Melissa Nicolardi, Film maker and co-producer of The Borderlands Project and Michael Brooks, Policy analyst, commentator and host of INTERSECTION on Aslan Media.

Panels starts at 2.20 mins

*Michael Brooks a New York based policy analyst and commentator. He is the host of INTERSECTION on Aslan Media and a contributor and producer for the award winning political radio show the Majority Report. His writing has been published in the Washington Post, Alternet and PSFK and he appears regularly as a guest analyst on Al Jazeera America, Huffington Post Live and other outlets.