On Borders

Welcome to The Mantle's sixth virtual roundtable. For this installment, we have brought together a group of experts to discuss borders, their purpose, and who they serve. With the ongoing global refugee crisis, Trump clamoring for his border wall, European countries struggling to respond to the continual influx of refugees, and rising nationalist sentiment in Europe and North America, there is a growing need to understand how borders function, and how they impact the lives of those bound by them.

Adding their voices to this discussion are Joan Cocks, a political theorist from Mount Holyoke University specializing in nationalism, sovereignty and questions of landscape and place, Michael Forman of the University of Washington, Tacoma, a professor of social and political theory and human rights whose research focuses on human rights, globalization and transformations of the state, and Elisabeth Vallet of Université du Québec à Montréal, adjunct professor of geography and Scientific Director of the Raoul-Dandurand Chair of Strategic and Diplomatic Studies.

To follow the roundtable, see my introductory remarks below, then click each of the participants to read their essays and responses. At the bottom of this page you can read my concluding remarks.


- Corrie Hulse

September 4, 2017


Moderator's Introduction

What role do borders play in our ever more intertwined world? What purpose do they serve? Whose purpose do they serve?

Over the last year, I've been pondering how states and citizens interact with their borders. As someone with fairly cosmopolitan leanings, I am intrigued by the notion that in a global society one might wish to close themselves off from others. It seems at once unreasonable, and also impossible. Yet, here we are with countries pushing for greater border security, the American President pushing for a border wall along the U.S. / Mexico border, while at the same time people and commerce are spreading across these borders. 

As Immanuel Kant reminds us, we are all unavoidably side by side. So, why are we so intent on bordering ourselves off from each other? There are immediate political questions for governments to answer in the midst of situations such as the current refugee crisis, but there are also broader, more philosophical questions to be wrestled with. Why do these borders exist at all? Who are they meant to protect? To what extent are they still relevant? What role will borders play as our global community evolves?

I appreciate our three experts taking the time to join in this discussion. I look forward to finding the answers I seek, and discovering new questions with which to wrestle. I hope you enjoy reading their responses as much as I have, and that this roundtable might start a broader discourse.


  • Defining Lines

    Joan Cocks

    While “border” is the specific concept of a delineating, separating, and adjacency-creating edge, there’s a fundamental sense in which every concept has edges that help distinguish it from every other. Some of those other concepts will be similar to it but not identical, most will be incommensurable, and a few will be diametrically opposed. Thus, the concept of border is similar but not identical to “periphery” and “margin,” incommensurable with “forest” or “justice” or “appetite,” and diametrically opposed to “the center” on the one side and “unboundedness” on the other. Linguistic distinctions, in short, are made by drawing conceptual and hence mental dividing lines between x and y that also relate the entities they distinguish in different ways.

    Read essay »
  • The Border is No Longer a Line

    Élisabeth Vallet

    After the fall of the Berlin Wall it was believed that the reconfiguration of international relations was opening an age of globalization in which states, borders, and sovereignties would become obsolete. September 11, however, signaled the end of this Western-centered utopia and the beginning of an era where border barriers and walls were becoming central to a re-fortified world. Borders were seen as open, soft, and purposely porous. They have become more and more closed, hard, and seemingly impassable. 

    Read essay »
  • Reflections on Borders and Crossings

    Michael Forman

    The train that crosses the Oresund from Copenhagen to Malmö was nearly at its destination. As it pulled into the first stop, the doors stayed closed; gendarmes boarded and proceeded to check documents. For locals, used to a half-hour ride, the commute has more than doubled in duration. For the unfortunates pulled off the train, the ordeal would continue. The checks, new and broadly unpopular in Malmö, respond to the hostile reaction against refugees from Swedes who live far from the area. Both Denmark and Sweden are parties to the Schengen Agreement (1985) which allows for the free movement of their citizens as if they were in a single country. There are no checks on the way to Copenhagen.

    Read essay »
Moderator's Conclusion

In its inception, this roundtable was meant to simply focus on the role borders have played in the current refugee crisis. Yet, as the discussion evolved, it became clear there was much more to be said. There were more questions to ask, and broader issues at hand. I learned so much from our experts as to the history, meaning, and purpose of borders.

Throughout the roundtable, three main themes emerged.

The first is that borders are no longer merely a line, but have now become a zone. This is something we all experience as we travel, but probably don’t think much about. Our borders now extend far beyond simply the demarcated line between countries, reaching sometimes even across oceans as we must go through customs before even boarding flights to new countries. An interesting aspect of this, as Dr. Vallet notes, is that the borders are more pixelated. “That means that their opacity will vary depending on the nature of the flow – for instance the citizenship of the passport holder.” Thus, as borders expand, their dynamics also shift and flex depending on who it is that intends on crossing said border. I know for sure that my U.S. passport makes for much more flexible borders than say a Syrian passport.

The second theme is how these tightened borders affect identity, both of those living along the border region, and of those in bordering countries. Dr. Cocks explains that borders allow for the flourishing of cultures within a particular space. In this sense, we see the emergence of beautiful cultures and traditions in the various regions of the world. This is complicated as border lines are drawn through communities, separating groups from each other. Further, as Dr. Forman highlights, as border walls go up, so do racism, xenophobia, and nationalism. This can be seen in the U.S. and Europe as borders are fortified in response to the refugee crisis, and now we are seeing these growing nationalist movements in regions where there has either been an increase in immigration, or a perceived increase in immigration. 

The third is the dichotomy between an ever more globalized world, and yet more closed off borders. One of my biggest questions going in was how it was that our community was globalizing and our borders were closing. Dr. Vallet notes that globalization didn’t actually lead to the loosening or disappearance of borders as one might assume, but actually more to a “redefinition of territory.” As borders continue to solidify, it will be interesting to see how global markets are impacted, if at all.

Ultimately, I think what we will find is that the strengthening of borders will continue to be detrimental to all concerned. It will hurt states and economies, but most importantly, it will hurt people. I have always been drawn toward Kant’s ideal of Universal Hospitality. In Perpetual Peace, Kant explains "Hospitality means the right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy when he arrives in the land of another. One may refuse to receive him when this can be done without causing his destruction; but, so long as he peacefully occupies his place, one may not treat him with hostility." This notion of hospitality sticks with me whenever I see Syrian citizens fleeing Assad refused entry into countries where they seek refuge, or those stuck in the claws of the U.S. immigration system. I will continue to hope this swing toward more fortified borders will eventually swing back toward more cosmopolitan ideals, and more fluid borders.