Do borders have to divide?

What are borders, really? In an evolving world, what should they do?

Jorge Duenes/Reuters
A U.S. Marine strings concertina wire at the U.S.-Mexican border near Tijuana, Mexico, on Nov. 13.

I might argue that the word “border” best encapsulates the leading challenge facing democracies worldwide today. The fundamental question in politics from Poland to Peoria right now is this: Who gets to define who “we” are? For centuries, European countries have defined their “we” rather simply. Poland is where the Poles live. Germany is where the Germans live, and so on. The United States was more diverse, yet until at least the 1960s had its “we” defined almost exclusively by white Christians and Jews.

Those rigid definitions, however, are put under considerable stress when free economic markets and universal human rights are brought into play. Put simply, they don’t care about borders. In some ways, they see borders as an impediment.

Free markets compel the world to collaborate. They don’t give a fig if you are Jewish or Muslim, African or Australian. They want you to work together to create better products and bigger markets in which to sell them. This is why groups like the World Economic Forum are seen by some as threats to national sovereignty. Their job is to expand wealth, and the greater the world’s collaboration, the more wealth grows.

Human rights, meanwhile, compel us to focus on the humanity that binds us above the borders that separate us. They don’t care where the refugee is from or where she is going. They care about ensuring her health, security, and innate value. This can contribute to concerns about a group like the United Nations, which is tasked with upholding not nation-states but “the dignity and worth of the human person,” according to its charter.

Free markets and human rights are good, because we have seen categorical evidence that they make the world better. Yet who could say that borders are bad? Who would argue that an edict instantly removing them tomorrow would lead to anything but confusion and conflict? Fundamentally, this is what the world is wrestling with now: What are borders, really? In an evolving world, what should they do?

This is where this week’s cover story by staff writer Story Hinckley offers some valuable insight, I think. Told from a border community in New Mexico, it gives such a different perspective on what a border is. Is it important to maintain national integrity and rule of law? Then those functions can be valued and strengthened. Is it an impediment to broader and mutually enriching collaboration on education and culture? Then those effects can be mitigated by making the border, in those cases, more permeable.

Of course, there’s no perfect answer to every challenge. As with every policy, calibrating a border is a process of constant adaptation and recalibration. The picture on our cover of schoolchildren crossing a checkpoint is, in so many ways, a dynamic image of what a border can be as both security and opportunity. Increasingly, a border is becoming more of a tool than a 21st-century version of a moat and drawbridge. The world of today is asking new questions of every country. Borders can protect but not insulate.

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