The Past and Future of Borders

What is the purpose of the modern state in our ever more globalized world?

General Custer's death struggle. The battle of the Little Big Horn / H. Steinegger ; S.H. Redmond del. ; Lith. Britton, Rey & Co. S.F.
National Journal
Ethan Epstein
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Ethan Epstein
July 25, 2014, 1 a.m.

Look­ing around the world, it’s tempt­ing to think that na­tion­al bor­ders have sel­dom been less se­cure. Some 50,000 Cent­ral Amer­ic­an chil­dren have crossed the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der over the past sev­er­al months; Rus­sia an­nexed Crimea this spring, while the na­tion­al status of much of Ukraine re­mains in doubt; east­ern Syr­ia and vast swaths of Ir­aq have col­lapsed in­to one an­oth­er; and an in­creas­ingly ag­gress­ive China is em­broiled in a num­ber of ter­rit­ori­al dis­putes with its neigh­bors. There’s something palp­ably un­nerv­ing about watch­ing bor­ders dis­in­teg­rate; it feels as though a sol­id en­tity — the na­tion-state — is melt­ing in­to the air.

(Lib­rary of Con­gress)But as Har­vard his­tory pro­fess­or Charles S. Maier’s sweep­ing new book, Le­viath­an 2.0: In­vent­ing Mod­ern State­hood (Belknap Press, 2014), re­minds us, the mod­ern na­tion-state — defined in a loose sense by ter­rit­ori­al in­teg­rity, highly de­veloped gov­ern­ing struc­tures, and tech­no­lo­gic­al prowess — is it­self a his­tor­ic­al an­om­aly, one that did not really be­gin to take form un­til the mid-19th cen­tury. And, as he demon­strates, the pro­cesses by which mod­ern states came in­to ex­ist­ence were not al­ways sa­vory.

Maier be­gins his im­mensely am­bi­tious treat­ise with a story from June 25, 1876, when the United States Army de­ployed “sev­en hun­dred cav­alry against an al­li­ance of Lakota, Ar­apaho, and Chey­enne com­munit­ies.” Were the Amer­ic­an sol­diers, Maier asks, “really con­fid­ent that these hills and river val­leys were their coun­try’s own? What might such an as­ser­tion sig­ni­fy?” For their part, the “Nat­ive Amer­ic­ans have their own eco­nom­ic re­la­tion­ship to these lands,” he writes, adding that “per­haps neither side really com­pre­hends why the oth­er must claim such a vast land­scape.” The Nat­ive Amer­ic­ans won that battle, which we now know as Custer’s Last Stand. But “in the long run,” notes Maier, “the vic­tors of that day [be­came] losers.” The state won out in the end.

Un­like Hobbes’s 1651 Le­viath­an, Maier’s book is primar­ily a work of his­tory, not philo­sophy. And like an­oth­er big book re­leased in the past year — Thomas Piketty’s Cap­it­al in the Twenty-First Cen­turyLe­viath­an 2.0 draws on a wealth of ex­amples span­ning mul­tiple con­tin­ents. In­deed, des­pite the open­ing case he’s chosen, Maier does not single out the United States as unique in­so­far as its de­vel­op­ment as a na­tion-state co­in­cided with the sub­jug­a­tion of tribes. Sim­il­ar events played out, he writes, in the Ot­to­man Em­pire, the Cau­cas­us high­lands of Cent­ral Asia, and the Afric­an sa­van­nas.

Of course, it wasn’t only the sub­jug­a­tion of nomads that gave rise to the mod­ern state. Broad­er “wars of na­tion­al re­con­struc­tion” — think the Franco-Prus­si­an War or our own Civil War — played a part by es­tab­lish­ing the bor­ders that we still see on the map today. “Tech­no­lo­gic­al trans­form­a­tion was a crit­ic­al in­put” as well, Maier main­tains, de­scrib­ing the im­port­ance of de­vel­op­ments such as rail­roads. “The rail­road in­flu­enced polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tion “… by re­in­for­cing the cred­ib­il­ity of the na­tion-state as a co­hes­ive arena of col­lect­ive de­cision-mak­ing,” he writes. 

Maier also ob­serves the re­mark­able fact that states around the world con­sti­tuted them­selves al­most sim­ul­tan­eously in the peri­od from 1850 to 1880. “No doubt the pro­cess was in­fec­tious,” he as­serts, also not­ing the in­creased mo­bil­ity of goods, people, and ideas in this peri­od. Very few coun­tries were op­er­at­ing in a va­cu­um, and de­vel­op­ments in one coun­try in­ev­it­ably in­flu­enced those in an­oth­er. The book runs up through the mid-20th cen­tury, when the mod­ern state over­stepped its bounds in places such as Nazi Ger­many, Mao’s China, and the So­viet Uni­on. 

While not a work of policy, Maier’s book is an op­por­tun­ity for poli­cy­makers to con­tem­plate the nature of the mod­ern state — and where it might be go­ing from here. What, after all, is the pur­pose of the mod­ern state in our ever more glob­al­ized world? It’s a ques­tion many seem to be ask­ing; most European states, for in­stance, have vol­un­tar­ily giv­en up im­port­ant as­pects of their na­tion­al sov­er­eignty in pur­suit of transna­tion­al mod­els of gov­ernance (al­though there is now a sig­ni­fic­ant push­back in many European coun­tries against those trends). Put dif­fer­ently and more pess­im­ist­ic­ally: Is the col­lapse of the Syr­ia-Ir­aq bor­der one last gasp of an older world, or is it a har­binger of things to come? What will Le­viath­an 3.0 look like — if it ex­ists at all?

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