In her 2017 travelogue Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, the writer and poet Kapka Kassabova meets Emel, a loquacious Turkish civil servant who tells her that ‘the only good thing about a border is that you can cross it’. These words speak to an inherent contradiction. Borders stand as overt manifestations of national power. They represent what seems most fixed and immutable about the state. But in reality, what they do more than anything else is invite transgression.
This idea that borders are not quite what we perceive them to be is the thematic ballast for Klaus Dodds’s impressive and timely Border Wars. And it is a point worth making today, when a global pandemic has made borders a staple of both political rhetoric and the popular imagination. Even before Covid, Donald Trump repeatedly threatened to build a ‘beautiful’ border wall between the United States and Mexico, in large part because he knew this image resonated powerfully (if not luridly) with large chunks of the electorate.
Trump conjured up an image of the border cast in concrete and steel. But Dodds shows that they are more often projections of our collective psyche. When the Berlin Wall — a physical and psychological border that divided both Germany and East and West — came down in 1989, the West was strong, triumphant — and expansive. Tearing down ‘communist walls’ and ‘red fences’ became its political mantra. Outwards spread the EU and Nato, reflecting an optimism in the ‘righteousness and robustness of liberal, democratic and Western countries’. The migrants were still there, of course, but we could ignore them. We felt strong, so they scared us less.
Then came 9/11. As Dodds memorably puts it, that ‘very symbol of transnational mobility, the jet plane, was repurposed as a weapon of mass destruction’. Almost immediately, George W. Bush, the US president at the time, responded by shutting the southern border with Mexico (though the 9/11 terrorists all came from a different continent entirely). It was the end of the post-Cold War confidence. When the Berlin Wall came down there were 15 national borders with some kind of wall or fence or barrier; today there are 77, most of which were built after 9/11. This speaks to a little-voiced truth: history shows that hard borders spring up not out of necessity but fear. This is not to say there is no need for them; only that it is not need that drives their proliferation.
Dodds is persuasive that borders reveal ‘fundamental truths about humanity’.He shows us that ‘bordering [is] an activity rather than simply... inert lines on the map’. Many of these activities are big business. European and North American border infrastructure and security:
“illustrate a sprawling industrial-legal-political-military complex, involving a cast of characters such as defence personnel, border guards, lawyers, policymakers, smugglers, private contractors, civil society groups and political leaders.
Dodds quotes a report released in March 2019 by the business analytical group Frost and Sullivan estimating that the border security market will be worth at least $169 billion by 2025. No wonder politicians can’t leave the subject alone.
Meanwhile, climate change means no border is ever safely ‘inert’. The ‘rules we use for mountains [are] being undermined by natural change,’ we are told. ‘Ridges and crests get eroded and denuded over time, and a retreating glacier... will provoke fresh opportunities to re-border.’
And there is no escaping them geopolitically. If I think of the conflicts I have covered as a foreign correspondent, it is clear that when you strip away the rhetoric and the violence most are, in their essence, border disputes: Russia-Ukraine, Israel-Palestine, Greece-Turkey. The list goes on. And if we are still in a post-colonial age, it is in the borderlands where empire mainly lingers. It’s not Delhi, the heart of the British Raj, where ancient hatreds still boil, but Kashmir, on its contested border with Pakistan. At the peak of its power the terror group Isis destroyed, with much publicity, the artificial border between Syria and Iraq constructed by Britain and France in 1916.
I now understand something I only intuited before. Our consciousness of borders works in inverse proportion to our power as citizens. For most of my life I breezed between continents. Europe, Asia, Africa — it made little difference. The thought of being denied entry to anywhere didn’t really register. That changed on 31 December 2020. Now I think about how to work legally in the EU, how long I can stay there, and where I can live. Now I deal with what migrants the world over face: paperwork. I remain hugely privileged, but, for the first time in my life, borders have become something tangible I must negotiate, not something invisible I merely cross.