contributor perspectives

Borders Come and Go, but Geography Remains

Anisa Mehdi
Board of Contributors
8 MINS READMay 28, 2016 | 13:45 GMT
The Judean Desert, near the West Bank city of Jericho, has found itself behind various borders over the past century.

The Judean Desert, near the West Bank city of Jericho, has found itself behind various borders over the past century.


A quote from Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl comes to mind as my Global Affairs colleagues consider Parag Khanna's Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization. The anthropologist famous for his voyage on the Kon-Tiki said, "Borders? I have never seen one, but I have heard they exist in the minds of some people."

Heyerdahl would have appreciated Ian Morris's Why the West Rules — For Now, in which he suggests, "Geography has been the main force determining the different fates of each part of the planet for the past 20,000 years." Once human beings began to settle rather than wander — about 10,000 years ago — our attachment to place transformed. We could grow food. We could build homes, cities and walls. We could set sail from Peru to Polynesia and return to Norway, as did Heyerdahl. And we could fight to keep what we had created.

Looking back only half a millennium, when land travel was still a primary option for transit, trade flourished along the Silk Road. Goods moved from China through the built and protected cities of Samarkand and Damascus, across Anatolia into the European continent and back. Once trade opened to the Americas, however, the eastern route gradually fell into disuse and the Atlantic, once a barrier, became the preferred path to bounty.

With the shift in trade came a shift in power, too. Asia lost its primacy and Europe found its legs; the Ottoman bridge between the two began to show its age. It took centuries, but geography wielded its hard hammer, reconstructing human priorities, popularity and affinities. We could credit the hammers of Mark Sykes and Francois George-Picot with nailing the geographical coffin of the sick man of Europe, but in truth its demise was already well underway.

1916: Sykes-Picot Agreement

Khanna suggests an evolution from actual geographic ownership to virtual control, shifting power from the resident culture to its administrator, who may reside anywhere.

"The long-standing mantra of the de jure world is 'This land is my land.' The new motto of the de facto, supply chain world is 'Use it or lose it.' In a supply chain world, it matters less who owns (or claims) territory than who uses (or administers) it."

The Middle Eastern Exception

But Khanna's theory of connectography will find tough customers in the Middle East. Here, the land itself is the connection. The region dominated global intellectual inquiry and economic advancement for 700 years. Recovering from its decline and decay will require more than remapping the region "in terms of its connections rather than its borders." It's going to take anger, education and patience to affect its proper rescue.

Today anger abounds and patience is scarce. The value of education is being resurrected. But right now in the Middle East, dictators and monarchs are barely holding nation-states together. Khanna's "connective infrastructure" can't hold a candle to rampant "separatist nationalism."

In the 100 years since the lauded and damned Sykes-Picot Agreement, Middle Eastern borders have continued to shift. In fact, they have for centuries. All borders shift. Claimants to the land shift. But between the Tigris and the Mediterranean, Khanna's refrain, "This land is my land," is as relevant now as it was in 1916. One hundred years after Sykes-Picot, those lines on paper conjure unfulfilled wishes for locals and foreigners alike. Only briefly did they give regional dominion to Europeans who envisioned sharing a new empire underlain with a new form of fuel. Nationalism, Pan-Arabism, Baathism and sectarian conflicts have successively intruded on that fantasy. A mere 99 years ago, London was said to:

"Favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people … it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

Lord Arthur Balfour was clear about parity for all potentially affected communities in his remarkable offer. However, the second and third parts of that promise are dreams deferred, stubbornly stirring the roots of current conflicts.

It is unimaginable today that one nation would promise a second nation the country of a third that was still part of a fourth imperial entity. Unless perhaps there were an international offer of parts of northern Iraq, eastern Turkey and northwest Iran to Kurds that guaranteed the rights of non-Kurdish speaking peoples residing therein … or an utter division of Iraq into pseudo-sectarian silos, with concomitant social engineering like that which accompanied the division of India into India, Pakistan and Bangladesh … or a unilateral declaration that occupied Palestinian territories were to be free and independent with a contiguous geography and protection for settler communities that remained. These are the kinds of interventions that began 100 years ago. Dare the international community intrude like that anywhere again?

Emboldened by Sykes, Picot and Balfour, a swift rewriting of the region continued. At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, Iraq was formally made a Class A mandate entrusted to Britain. Palestine was also placed under British mandate. Syria, under French influence thanks to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, was placed under French mandate. The Europeans ousted locally elected leaders. Mandate language referenced Balfour, maintaining "that the rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudiced," and assuring the "acquisition of Palestinian citizenship by Jews who take up their permanent residence in Palestine." More dreams of self-determination, deferred.

Fast-forward to 1947. During the 27-year mandate, increasing hostility among native Palestinian populations, their British overlords and Jewish immigrants from Europe became unacceptable to post-World War II powers. The fledgling United Nations attempted to draw a new map that might resolve post-World War I problems: the partition of Palestine.

1947: The Partition Plan

That did not go over well with most Palestinians.

Only 20 years later the Six-Day War brought another rewrite of borders, as did the Camp David Accords in 1978. With the Oslo Accord of 1993 came other suggestions for workable boundaries. Wars in Lebanon (2006) and Gaza (2007, 2014 and 2015) changed the northern and southern edges of Israel. The disastrous fallout from the allied invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the riotous aftermath of the Arab Spring left internal Iraqi and Syrian borders in shambles, crippled by the new dream-deferring nightmare: the Islamic State.

1948-1949: Israel Declares Independence After the British Give up Control of Palestine
1967: Israel Annexes Territory
1975-1982: Israel Withdraws From Sinai
Today: Israeli Settlers Push Deeper Into the Palestinian Territories

Looking Beyond Borders

It is time to imagine new geographic — and potentially connected — possibilities for this war-weary expanse. Twentieth-century efforts to determine the region's future without conferring with locals have proved futile. The 21st century offers new opportunity. Much iteration of maps will proceed as provincial players consider their options regarding food, water, trade, energy and safety.

Eventually Khanna's insight may be appreciated: "Geography matters intensely, but it does not follow that borders do. We should never confuse geography, which is paramount, with political geography, which is transient." To wit, some of these borders change every 60 to 70 years; Israel's change every 10 to 15 years. Given the foreseeable dearth of resources, 21st-century cartographers will need to envision a shared geographic model for survival rather than the punishing "winner takes all" paradigm.

There was a time when wise men from this region proclaimed "be a light unto the world," preached "love your neighbor as yourself," and repeated "mercy and compassion" to all, above all. Today, those ideologies are all but buried in blood and dust. It's as if a geopolitical spell has been cast on the people who populate the formerly Fertile Crescent, encouraging new ideologies that willfully disrupt the region's foundational enchantment: the Abrahamic culture of hospitality and welcome.

Referring to Khanna's predictions, Jay Ogilvy notes "the economics of supply lines moves into the foreground as politics and ideology fade into the background." If that is the case, the Middle East may be doomed. Its supplies of oil are waning; its water is evaporating; agriculture and other industry are limited, and tourism is virtually gone. Without a turnaround, competing ideologies may be all that are left.

Connectography could be the future's forecaster. Human beings have developed analytics and technology to look back and see what hasn't worked and could appropriately alter our approach. With the capacity to look forward and explore scenarios, a higher-functioning tomorrow is possible. It will take communication rather than combat among allies and foes to agree on what would be best for the region that we today call "the Middle East" as it runs out of oil and water and as temperatures rise.

Borders? Ask the land if it has seen a border. Borders will come and go, as will governments, villages, temples and towers. Geography remains.

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