At the turn of the 21st century, the nation-state seemed to be on the wane. Commentators spoke sagely about the inevitability of globalization: Trade would not just make economies interdependent, it would knit societies together. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, famously suggested that the world was becoming “flat,” its borders and barriers melting away. In some respects, he was right, at least where trade was concerned. But in a more literal sense, Friedman could not have been more wrong. Since the end of the Cold War, borders have become more, not less, pronounced. When the Berlin Wall fell, there were about a dozen border walls separating countries. Now, there are more than 70.
Those walls seek to block an ever-growing number of people: refugees fleeing war and the implosion of their countries, workers seeking better wages and better lives, and migrants displaced by the effects of climate change. In “The Edge of the Plain: How Borders Make and Break Our World,” a lyrical tour of borders in the past and the present, the writer James Crawford visits several of these barriers and finds in them an astounding, ancient power. “Borders don’t just divide the landscape,” he writes. “They multiply it, creating new worlds, new realities. They’ve been doing this now for thousands of years. Unrolling across the earth. Casting their strange magic out over the plains.”
That magic can feel rather cruel. One of the sites he visits is the series of razor-wire fences that separates the Spanish exclave of Melilla from surrounding Morocco. Crawford describes the attempts of migrants to scale these fences in the dead of night, break through phalanxes of military police and reach an office building where they can claim asylum. They are rarely successful. The border there separates not just jurisdictions, but universes. Men and boys hurl themselves at this barrier, striving to cross a great divide, to climb “a fence in Africa and come down on the other side, in another continent. In Europe.” Crawford notes that this is a relatively new development: Melilla and Ceuta— Spain’s other exclave in Morocco — had long drawn African migrants, but they were not enclosed by fences until the middle of the 1990s, when Spain integrated more closely into the European Union. As Europe’s internal borders vanished, its external borders rose.
Every border wall faces two ways. It may be an impediment to movement, but it is also an expression of political purpose and vision. Donald Trump earned derision in many corners for wanting a “big, beautiful wall” along the southern border. In truth, with those insistent adjectives, he was describing not his cherished wall but the country, an imagined land that could achieve greatness only once curtained in concrete and concertina wire. Like many others before him, Trump saw that nations come into being at their borders. Crawford takes readers to ancient Greece, to the remote borderlands between city-states such as Athens and Boeotia, Sparta and Argos. These wild areas were sites of tremendous ceremonial importance, where the Spartans, for instance, celebrated the heroic martyrs of a battle against Argos in 546 B.C., and where the Athenians staged coming-of-age ceremonies for boys who would “swear oaths to the boundary stones of the fatherland.” Even for a Greek city-state — so different in scale from today’s nation-states — the very end of the realm seemed to contain its origins.
Crawford relishes the metaphorical qualities of borders, how they are imagined as much as they are real. He spends time with artists, photographers and conservationists who delve into the political and personal significance of national boundaries. Over Zoom and Google Maps (the pandemic interrupted his border-hopping travels), Crawford follows a group of Mexican and American artists as they erect public installations across the American West to trace the old 1821 border between the United States and Mexico (which was supplanted in 1848 by the border that exists today) to show that all boundaries are ephemeral. A mapmaker in the Arctic Circle produces lush renderings of Scandinavia populated only by place names in the Sami language, an homage to a time before nation-states when nomadic communities could follow their reindeer herds over the frozen land and feel in possession of their world. Tabi Joda, a Cameroonian ecologist, speaks to Crawford “in long, lyrical paragraphs.” He is an architect of the Great Green Wall, an attempt to reforest a belt across the belly of Africa and keep at bay the expansion of the Sahara, seeking to reverse the effects of climate change that have forced many people in the Sahel to migrate. “The world has become really, really borderless,” Joda tells him, “yet there are still borders within this borderlessness.”
Bound only by the range of Crawford’s curiosity, the book wanders freely from the furrows of Roman earthworks in Scotland to the deserts of Arizona to the imaginations of poets and epidemiologists. Crawford is at his best when surrendering to his propensity for reverie, an irrepressible, almost romantic sense of wonder that drives the reader from chapter to chapter. An ancient Mesopotamian limestone boundary marker, covered in cuneiform inscriptions, has “an aura,” a presence and physicality “so solid, so dense, that it felt as if it had its own gravity well.” In Crawford’s reportage, the work of geologists, U.N. bureaucrats and junior professors takes on an otherworldly majesty.
And yet this tendency to marvel leads to some rather breezy exposition. In a single chapter, he glides from ancient Greek city-states to the poetry of soldiers manning the trenches of World War I. His exploration of a mythical wall built by Alexander the Great paves the way for a discussion of China’s Great Firewall in cyberspace. Borders lose definition as he jumps through time and space, from the legendary to the concrete and back again. When he visits the wall that cordons off Palestinian areas of Jerusalem, he adds to its profusion of graffiti, stenciling onto it a Sumerian phrase cribbed from that Mesopotamian pillar. It is a curious gesture in a book in which the author largely plays a passive role, content to observe and describe. Crawford no doubt finds something wondrous in grafting an ancient barrier onto a modern one. Here, and throughout the book, his awe at what people have done and will to do to one another is palpable. But that awe never rises to the level of critique.
It takes an extraordinary kind of humility to write a book about one of the most salient political issues of our time without advancing a single argument. In all their diversity and complexity, borders deserve the eloquent treatment Crawford gives them. But borders are made by states, and states determine what borders mean for the people who live on either side of them and for those who seek to cross. Individuals had a far different relationship to states in the past than they do now; the nation-state, which welded personal identity to territory and government, only emerged in Europe in the 19th century, spread around the globe in the 20th and is proving unequal, in many places, to the global challenges and strains of the 21st. Crawford’s singular focus on boundaries — and his lack of interest in thinking about how states have changed over time and may continue to change — makes this otherwise thoughtful and expansive work feel a touch hollow, an exercise akin to learning about soup by studying soup bowls.
The most powerful barriers to the movement of people are not physical, of course, but bureaucratic. And these have only metastasized in recent years. Humans carry borders with them everywhere they go. The arbitrary lottery of nationality determines life outcomes; workers of equivalent skill sets doing the same kind of labor make much more in some countries than in others. If you have a U.S. passport, you can travel visa-free to more than 100 countries. A Bangladeshi passport gets you into fewer than 50. The world does seem flat — if you have the right documents. Those without such privilege still find mountains in every direction. They do not need to come upon a border wall to know that the world wants to keep them in place.
Kanishk Tharoor is a senior editor at Foreign Affairs; the author of “Swimmer Among the Stars,” a collection of short fiction; and the presenter of the BBC radio series “Museum of Lost Objects.”
How Borders Make and Break Our World
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