Trump’s UN speech and Germany’s election show borders are back
Niall Ferguson says boundaries between countries are determined more by force than logic or democracy, and the rejection today of globalism by the likes of Donald Trump will only harm small nations
In 1985, five European states signed the Schengen Agreement, abolishing border checks between them. In 1996, John Perry Barlow wrote his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, addressed to the “governments of the industrial world”. He told them: “Cyberspace does not lie within your borders.”
Two decades later, borders are back. In his speech last week to the United Nations General Assembly, Donald Trump was unequivocal: “If we aspire to the approval of history, then we must fulfil our sovereign duties to the people we faithfully represent. We must protect our nations, their interests and their futures.
“As president of the United States,” he said, “I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always, and should always, put your countries first.” Trump’s assertion was one of the few lines in the speech that won applause.
The world is not in a globalist mood. Brexit is about reasserting sovereignty, above all over immigration. Angela Merkel has been re-elected German chancellor, but her party’s share of the vote reduced, mainly because of Germany’s borders. Trump clings to his election promise to build a wall along the US-Mexican border and exclude citizens of mainly Muslim countries associated with terrorism. European elites sneer, but polls show majorities of their citizens would support a similar ban on Muslim immigration.
Yet when you reflect on borders, you see how strange the world is. Ninety-five per cent of all people live in fewer than 90 countries. Yet the United Nations has 193 members. Among its most recent recruits are East Timor (1.3 million) and Montenegro (629,000).
Why do the Kurds, numbering up to 45 million, not yet have a nation state with borders of their own? Why do the Catalans not? On Monday Iraqi Kurdistan voted on independence from Iraq. Next Sunday, Catalonia is due to vote on independence from Spain. Neither poll is seen as legitimate by the states from which Kurds and Catalans would secede. Yet if the Pacific island Nauru (11,359) is a sovereign state, what is the argument against independent Kurdistan or Catalonia?
Or what about the Rohingya, the Muslim minority in Myanmar whose plight has attracted the world’s attention? Would Aung San Suu Kyi’s critics cheer if she proclaimed the independence of Rohingyastan?
Economist Alberto Alesina argued that if country size were determined by either economic rationality or democratic preferences, the map of the world would look completely different. But that is not how history works. Small countries can attain independence where the strategic stakes are low. Otherwise, in the immortal words of Thucydides, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.
A hundred years ago, US president Woodrow Wilson naively assumed a world based on national self-determination rather than imperialism would be stable. But in Europe and the Middle East, populations were not distributed in homogeneous blocks but patchwork quilts of religion, language and ethnicity. Trying to create nation states in Europe paved the way for the second world war, not least because it legitimised the vision of a Greater Germany that inspired the Austrian Adolf Hitler.
The modern world order is not fair. There are nearly as many Indians as Chinese, but only China is on the UN Security Council. There are more Germans than French or British citizens, yet France and Britain are among the five permanent UN Security Council members, along with the US, Russia and China. Permanent members owe their status to past victories, or past alliances compensating for defeat.
Nevertheless, the Security Council has yet to impose its will on North Korea. Last week’s tough talk took the world another step closer to a day of reckoning. Financial sanctions now squeeze Pyongyang.
The North Koreans are threatening to detonate a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific. The other members of the “P5” are waking up to the possibility that Trump has a real, if risky, military option.
Borders are a function of power. If you can’t defend them, they are just dotted lines. The Kim dynasty’s calculation has been that nukes are the ultimate border guards. We shall soon find if that calculation is correct. If so, many more states will want them. If not, we shall be back in the 19th century, when the great powers played their Great Game with everyone else’s borders.
Niall Ferguson’s new book, The Square and the Tower, will be published on October 5