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ISIS fighters marching in Raqqa, Syria
Associated Press
ISIS fighters marching in Raqqa, Syria

Borderline crazy

Middle East | Not-so-internal conflicts are redrawing the map of the world

Issue: "Into thin air," Aug. 23, 2014

Six million refugees know something is up. Across conflict-torn areas of the world, a new map is being drawn. The consequence of long-term Western disengagement is that it’s leading to the actual breakdown of the nation-state as we’ve known it.

Before the latest crises in Iraq, Gaza, and Ukraine, the UN refugee agency counted 51.2 million people worldwide forced from their homes—as refugees, internally displaced, or asylum seekers. That’s the largest number of people on the run recorded since the UN began keeping track of them in the early 1950s. Six million more people became refugees in 2013 than in 2012. Six million.

The civil war in Syria is the biggest cause of displacement, with over 170,000 dead and 9 million displaced. Iraq in just one month’s time is becoming a refugee magnet: For planning purposes, the UN is estimating more than 1.6 million displaced there by December. Of those 500,000 will be Syrians, more than 12,000 Palestinians, and over a million internally displaced Iraqis.

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The point is, the civil wars once thought to be self-contained, unimportant, or simply remote turn out not to be. In fact, they turn out to be redrawing the map of the world. 

In just a few months’ time ISIS fighters burst from the confines of a stalemated conflict in Syria. By conquering Iraq’s middle they have eliminated the border between Syria and Iraq. They threaten to do the same to Syria’s border with Lebanon, and would like to move on Jordan. 

Hamas militants built tunnels on the dream of erasing borders with Israel, even erasing Israel. Elsewhere, Taliban leaders on both sides of the Af-Pak border want to wipe out it, too. And the world has watched as Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and now tries to dissolve the border between Russia and eastern Ukraine. 

Do borders and the integrity of modern nation-states matter? How we answer those questions has significant implications. We can’t defend militarily all borders, but we can acknowledge their importance, honor their integrity ourselves, and employ alliances to police them when threatened (deploying NATO where it concerns Ukraine and areas that threaten Europe). It would be a starting place toward coherence in an otherwise incoherent season, to help policymakers sort out when to intervene but also to guide when to back off.

One example where a higher view of state sovereignty would have led to a different decision is Libya. Its “Arab Spring” revolution played out violently but within its own borders largely by dent of history and geography. In Syria, cross-border warfare affecting Lebanon, Israel, and Iraq started immediately, and the growth of rebel militants operating under the name Islamic State of Iraq and Syria made plain their intent. Yet the United States and its NATO partners joined the fight in Libya while standing clear of Syria—a conflict that had potential—now realized—to threaten a wider region, to change the map.

In Iraq both the Baghdad government and the Obama administration have made a tacit agreement with the Islamic State to accept de facto its territorial grab, defying de jure Iraq’s standing as a nation. The Islamic State can hold the Sunni middle while Kurds hold the Kurdish north and Baghdad holds the Shiite south. Left vulnerable are Christians and other minorities, along with dissenting Muslims, all who once had standing under the nation-state.

And what about our own borders? Surely when we turn a blind eye to border take-downs, it says to the world our own borders matter less. The consequences are playing out at the southern border where the failure to stop thousands of undocumented and abandoned minors signals we aren’t serious about policing it. 

No human systems are perfect, but the rise of the nation-state succeeded at replacing feudalism and forms of governance once based on dynasties and brute conquest. The nation-state allowed fixed boundaries within which a mix of races, ethnicities, and religions could find common ground and common good in some form of nationalism—what Winston Churchill called patriotism, as in loyalty (even love) for the flag not an obsession with planting it everywhere. It’s created space for the rule of law rather than the rule of man or the mob. Taking its structure lightly will come back on us.


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