‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’ wrote Robert Frost, partially in an ironic commentary on the human condition, and, depending on your interpretation of the poem, in reluctant acceptance of the reality that human beings have always divided themselves from each other.
Our nation-state boundaries are simply modern examples of the demarcation of claimed territory on a bigger scale than in previous eras. States are tribes writ large, and if what you claim, conflicts with what I claim, therein lies dispute, and potential conflict.
At least we have the mechanisms to solve these disputes without recourse to violence, although, alas, these do not always work, and when they don’t work, the consequences make headlines.
The next few years will be littered with these examples, so it’s important to remember that more often than not disputes are reconciled, and, as Harvard scientist Steven Pinker’s latest book (Enlightenment Now) argues, the modern human condition may never have been in a better place.
So, when we hear about the ‘hot’ borders, and the internal divisions within states when they become violent, we hear about them because this is not the normal state of affairs – TV News cameras usually don’t film houses not burning down.
Most major countries are involved in some sort of territorial dispute. For example, China has 13 territorial claims which are disputed. India has 11, France 9, the USA 7. These can include arguments about land or water boundaries, land seizures, and regions declaring self-rule. Some are well known, Israel/Palestine and Russia/Ukraine for example, others are more obscure such as the diplomatic battle between the UK, Iceland, Denmark, and Ireland over Rockall Island in the North Atlantic. This is a bleak uninhabited place mostly known for being included in the Radio Four General Synopsis 0600 Shipping Forecast as in ‘Viking, -Fisher -Biscay – Rockall’.
We are unlikely to hear about military skirmishes around Rockall this year, but there are several flashpoints around the world likely to make headlines.
The most dangerous of these looks to be along the North Korea/South Korea border. It’s possible the 2018 Winter Olympics may lead to better relations and a reduction in tensions on the Korean Peninsula. However, another scenario is that the North played footsie during the Games safe in the knowledge that the Americans had to dial down President Trump’s fiery rhetoric while the Olympics were ongoing. The Games, and offer of dialogue bought the North several months in which to continue their efforts to engineer deliverable nuclear weapons.
The Yemen/Saudi Arabia border looks set to continue to be ‘hot’. The Saudis intervened militarily in the conflict in Yemen to try and check Iranian influence there. The Iranian backed Houthi rebels responded by firing rockets into the Kingdom including some which reached as far as the capital – Riyadh.
We will continue to hear about the Israeli/Palestine border issues, but another problem is looming on the Israeli/Lebanon border where Hizbollah has 100,000 rockets pointed at Israel, and where Israel is busy trying to ‘harden’ the frontier in case of incursions. Next door the Iranians have planted themselves in Syria to support President Assad, and are looking southwest towards Israel.
High up in the Himalayas, on the Doklam plateau, a border dispute between China and India grumbles on. In 2017 there was a 72-day military standoff in the disputed area which ended with ‘expeditious disengagement’ by each side. Since then though China is reported to have continued building roads in the border region it shares with India and Bhutan, an area hitherto unsuited for military activity. India fears this road construction could allow China to advance heavy armour and cut the Siliguri Corridor known as the ‘Chicken’s neck’ a relatively narrow piece of land which would then divide the mass of India from its northeastern states.
Venezuela’s borders are heating up. Colombia and Brazil have tightened border controls with their neighbour as hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans flee a worsening economic crisis. Both have sent extra troops to the frontiers and Brazil has relocated thousands of refugees after several outbreaks of violence against them by local people. This is not a border dispute but is an example of how, in theory, a nation-state border can act as the defining line of sanctuary, an argument which opposes that of the ‘No Borders’ movement.
There are several more potential flashpoints but there’s also a quiet border which will make news as the debate rages on about how to keep it quiet. One of the thorniest issues in the Brexit negotiations is the border dividing the island of Ireland. At stake, not just bureaucratic difficulties in trade, but the danger of turning a quiet border into a hot one.
Everyone on the Emerald Isle knows this and this partially explains why, years after the Good Friday agreement, the ‘Peace Walls’, which run through peoples back gardens in Belfast, remains standing…. ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’.