What to Make of National Borders

In the age of globalization, ideas, commerce, capital, and information can flow across national borders before you can say “damn, that was fast.” Why can’t people cross borders so easily? Here is how I see national borders: they are arbitrary lines drawn to establish who belongs and who does not. Let’s take a look at three examples.

One of these lines separates the Middle-East’s richest nation, Saudi Arabia, from its poorest, Yemen. The region, a hotbed of terrorism, has caused a spike in neighborly paranoia. Recently, Saudi Arabia has designated billions of dollars into efforts to tighten up its border with Yemen, one of the region’s most terror-infested nations. Saudi Arabia wants to protect itself from the dangers of Yemeni border crossers, but the billions of dollars may not be all that useful. While Yemen is home for Saudi Arabian-feared dangerous individuals, it is also home for innocent pastoral tribes, many of which graze right around the border in question. Yemen has argued that the tightening of the border is unfair to these tribes, who need to cross it to graze. Saudi Arabia has said that they will allow these grazers to cross the border more easily, and I can’t help but think that the arbitrariness of the porosity reflects the arbitrariness of the actual border itself.

Over the last century, control of the Sinai Peninsula has flip-flopped back and forth multiple times between Israel and Egypt. The peninsula, currently Egypt’s, is strategically located in terms of global trade and military—whoever has control of the peninsula has easier access to both the Mediterranean and Red Seas. Putting global politics aside, however, one should consider the Bedouin people, an Arab sect who live across the Middle-East’s deserts. The Bedouin have been marginalized by the trading of control of the peninsula by Israel and Egypt, and here is my question: Does it really matter to the Sinai Bedouin whether they are “Israeli” or “Egyptian?”

Twenty-five years ago, before the European Union was formally established, half of the member nations of the European Economic Community signed the Schengen Agreement. This treaty created what is called the Schengen Area, an essentially borderless zone where, once inside one of the member nations, an individual could travel freely to any of the other member nations. Today, with the European Union having expanded to 27 member states, consent to the Schengen Agreement is a requirement to gain entry into the EU. Thus, much of Europe belongs to this “borderless” zone. Despite the recent sentiments to increase the strength of Frontex, the EU’s border patrol organization, the borders of the member nations of the EU remain among the easiest borders to cross in the world.

If, by now, you are a regular reader of my column, you can probably see where I’m going with this. If you are not, I would recommend that you go back and read at least the first article before continuing. Learning about these three examples, the Saudi Arabian-Yemeni border, the marginalization of the Sinai Bedouin from the multiple transfers of Sinai control between Israel and Egypt, and the growing European “borderless” zone, has made me think, how do national borders relate to the fundamental issue of identity, both personal and national, and the binary sense of the Self vs. the Other?

National borders exist in the first place to close off the boundaries of a nation. If you live on this side of the border, you are one of Us, and if you live on that side of the border, you are one of Them. In global terms, it is the goal of the state to instill this strong sense of national identity in its citizens. What could a state seek more than for its citizens to be able to identify with one another as a member of that state? Saudi Arabia’s border strengthening resembles to an almost eerie effect the United States of America’s immense efforts to strengthen its borders with Mexico (a rich nation trying to shut off a poor nation). Saudi Arabia doesn’t want Yemeni people trying to take on Saudi Arabian identity, and the U.S. doesn’t want Mexicans taking on an American identity.

Just as senses of identity are important on a national/global level, they too are important on a personal level. To what extent do the people who are actually affected by these borders identify with a nation? I suppose the best answer is….it varies. Some Yemeni cross the border in attempts to gain access to a more well-off nation. But to the tribes who graze along the border, I would venture to say it matters not to them whether they are Yemeni or Saudi Arabian. I would also say that this is similar for the Bedouin. National identity isn’t the only form of identity a person can take on—the Bedouin probably identify as Bedouin more so than they do as Egyptian now or Israeli in the past or as Egyptian even further back in the past.

I have said this before and I will say it again: in any global issue such as this one, the best thing anyone can ever do is to try to truly understand. What does it mean to Yemen as a state and to the individuals being affected by the border strengthening to be cut off so harshly from Saudi Arabia? What, historically, has it meant to the Sinai Bedouin to be marginalized by the trading back and forth of possession of their homeland? What does it mean to Europeans to be able to cross borders so easily? These global issues can always be narrowed down to the problem of understanding, and the Schengen Agreement is a landmark of transnational understanding. I certainly do not deny that national identity is no longer important in Europe (look at the headscarf issue in France, which I will be discussing in my next article, for one), but the Schengen Agreement marks a point in history where a transnational identity has become as significant, if not more, as national identity. A French person can identify as French and a Bulgarian as Bulgarian, but both can identify as European.

I am by no means claiming that national borders are “bad.” I am simply trying to look at them with an open mind: is it possible to enforce borders without Otherizing? In the case of the Schengen Zone of the European Union, yes. I know this will never come true, but my dream world is one where an agreement like the Schengen Agreement spans the entire globe, where I can identify as American but can also share some sense of belonging to a global community with anyone, anywhere in the world.

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