The importance of borders

There are many geopolitical problems in the world today. The news is inundated with stories about the defiance of North Korea and conflicts in Africa, as well as other parts of the world. Everyone from the talking heads on cable news to esteemed politicians appear to have no idea how to solve these problems. While it is not a solution in and of itself, a change in perspective could be useful. International relations are not as complicated as they seem. In certain ways, the behavior of countries is similar to that of individual people.

"Good fences make good neighbors," is a common and mostly true saying. It is born from the fact that people usually get along better when there are borders between them. Just as a fence lets us know where we can and cannot tread, so do rules and manners let us know what kind of behavior is appropriate. More important than simply having borders, though, is having well-defined borders that make sense to everyone involved. Putting up a fence, no matter how straight and strong, right through an area someone else believes is theirs is going to cause trouble. However, a fence along a line that everyone agrees upon will foster mutual understanding, and maybe even cooperation in maintaining that border.

Well defined borders are just as important to relations between countries. Natural formations such as lakes, rivers, and mountains make sense to everyone. Many of the borders in Europe and North America run along these lines, so there is little room for disagreement. When arbitrary lines are required, it is best they are lines everyone can agree on, such as the border between the United States and Canada. The comparatively stable regions of the world, like Western Europe and North America, owe this stability in part to their well-defined and sensible borders.

Many other parts of the world are not so fortunate. There are places where the border between nations is very well defined, but not agreed upon. This is the case with North and South Korea. Whether it is right or not, North Korea believes it has a claim to lands the political maps do not represent. Of course, the behavior of North Korea has many other roots, but maybe there wouldn't be so much conflict if there were a mountain range or river that cut the Korean Peninsula neatly in half. Unfortunately, there is not.

Other unstable places have borders that were drawn by far away people with little understanding of local issues. For example, borders that made sense to European colonists in Africa failed to take into account the vibrant ethnic and cultural diversity of the continent. In modern times, this has led to countries with many languages and customs, but nothing to unite them besides seemingly arbitrary lines placed by foreign people a long time ago. Like a person with multiple personalities, a country with multiple identities cannot be trusted to behave in any kind of rational way. If good fences make good neighbors, it is logical that bad fences make bad ones.

Of course, there are countries in the world that completely blow this theory out of the water. Iran is an ancient country with borders that are both well defined and make perfect sense. Yet it still behaves as an antagonist to other parts of the world. This shows another, even more important similarity between countries and people. Just when you think you have them figured out, they do something totally crazy and unexpected. Like building nuclear weapons, or threatening their neighbors with pictures of model airplanes.