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.”

Towards the end, there is a brief acknowledgement of resource “exploitation of the Niger Delta by foreign nationals,” but even this is too mild. The exploitation has been the result of foreign multinationals, corporations like Chevron that have backed Nigerian military juntas for the same reason the US invaded Iraq. Stories contextualizing the news by focusing largely on a post-colonial legacy situate foreign interference in the past. Endemic corruption and kleptocracy are just unfortunate vestiges, rather than conditions perpetuated and exploited by powerful economic interests.

There’s a maxim cautioning against reading the news without knowing history. Just as misleading is news that gives you ancient history when context requires modern history.

2. It provides its own justification and whitewashes other causes.

If a country’s borders are artificial, forcing people into a tenuous stalemate, then any violence must spring from that original sin. No explanation involving imperialism is necessary.

The “artificial borders” theory is invoked in cases where Western intervention has brought chaos to a country. Switzerland, for instance, is a country flooded with weapons, which flaunts regional norms and waited until the 1970s to grant universal women’s suffrage. It’s a permissive enough tax haven to qualify it for rogue-state status. However, Muammar Gaddhafi’s proposal to break up Switzerland is dismissed as patently absurd, but there might be something to Joe Biden’s idea to partition Iraq.

Iraq is violent because the US invaded it and destroyed its ability to function, then staked its exit on the creation of sectarian death squads. The “artificial borders” theory erases these facts, just as it erases the superpower proxy war taking place in Syria—and interventions throughout the Middle East. The template gets applied to Nigeria, because it could also justify any form of intervention in Africa.

It doesn’t get applied to the Ukraine because it’s not in Washington’s interests to dismember Europe. Ukrainian historian Taras Kuzio says that Ukraine’s borders “are as much legitimate as those of any other former dependency… the Soviet regime assembled the Ukrainian state after it had been divided for over 500 years.” If it had been NATO troops or Academi mercenaries rolling through Crimea, Kuzio’s statements would be gospel on CNN.

3. The “artificiality” of foreign countries legitimizes our own borders—and the violence that created them.

A couple days ago, I saw this image in honor of Indigenous Peoples’s Day:guadalupeThe image shows the territory ceded to the US by Mexico by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American war. America’s borders, rather than being handed down from on high, are the result of campaigns of conquest. Just like the Pasthun were split by the whims of a British colonial administrator named Durand, America’s borders and the people within them are subject to the designs of powerful men thousands of miles away.

Within that captured territory is Nevada. Last month, there were reports that a right-wing militia surrounding Cliven Bundy was instituting checkpoints to consolidate control over their territory. Since there was a clear partisan angle, the story was picked up, but how it was reported is illuminating. Were it happening in an “artificial” country, a story like this would involve a lot of history. Journalists would unpack that country’s sordid and violent history, linking the threat to that country’s very integrity.

Of course, America’s borders are artificial. The Nevada territory was obtained by the US following a war it provoked with its southern neighbor. After the war, Americans were encouraged to move to the region and hold it by force of arms.

As with all new American territories, the government subjugated the indigenous population, and used armed civilians to continue this. A mythology arose around this armed civilian constabulary. The militia currently intimidating Nevada residents see themselves as part of this tradition.

In a pluralistic country like America, stitched together through conquest, there have been attempts to unite the peoples under various ideological concepts. Unfortunately, this American “rule by the gun” is a concept that has proven all too enduring.

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