The Continuing Appeal of the “Artificial Borders” Theory

The Sykes-Picot Agreement map, 1916.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement map, 1916.

There’s a popular idea that global strife is caused by the “artificial borders” of “man-made” countries, moreso than the economic designs of oligarchs and the imperial wars that enforce them. The narrative holds that ethnic groups prone to internecine conflict were thrown into a temporary coexistence by the whims of (usually Victorian) cartographers. This trope is deployed most often in the Middle East, but it can be applied anywhere there’s an operation underway to bend that country to the Washington consensus.

Undoubtedly, this theory is only treated as plausible, serious, and self-evident only when used for Washington’s benefit. Compare the conventional wisdom on Syria and Iraq with the way Russian claims that Ukraine’s borders are artificial are dismissed as irredentist propaganda.

Now, during a long-term American campaign to militarize Africa, the Nigerian insurgent group Boko Haram has fueled calls for the US to “do something.” When there’s a country in the global south and the US military is involved, odds are you’ll hear about the country’s “artificiality.” Sure enough, a long piece on PolicyMic breaks finds Nigeria’s woes more rooted in 19th century politics than contemporary ones. With another “man-made” country in the headlines, it’s worth examining why the “artificial borders” theory is so popular.

1. It blames a harmless, bygone empire and absolves the world’s existing one.
This, more than Western economic interests, is responsible for corruption.

This, more than Western economic interests, is responsible for corruption.

“To understand Boko Haram,” PolicyMic explains, “the West must look more closely at itself than Nigeria.” So far so good; if anyone’s an advocate of looking more closely at the West, it’s me. However, as in the Middle East, the West’s culpability is limited to the late British Empire. “The history of colonialism” is behind “a century of destabilization, poor infrastructure, and corrupt leaders.” Continue reading