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A brilliant exploration of geopolitical conflict: Lord Howell reviews 'Border Wars'

A brilliant exploration of geopolitical conflict: Lord Howell reviews 'Border Wars'

Ukrainian soldiers take part in military exercises, February 2022 | Alamy

4 min read

Klaus Dodds has produced an excellently written and highly informative book

The world is full of border quarrels. Some are simmering, some are dormant, many have burst into volent hostilities, bloodshed, and tragedy.

It is hard to think of single conflict on earth that does not involve direct military clashes at, or near, some nation’s frontier line – or at least with a border dispute lying just beneath the surface.

The age of nation states (there have never been so many as today) has inevitably become the age of walls, stacked barbed wire barriers, mined no-man’s lands, shattered frontier villages, frightened and starving refugees, border forces in sinisterly similar gear everywhere, rumbling tanks and rocket launchers and, of course, endless civilian casualties. 

Globalisation has done nothing to slow the spread. In fact, in an age of noble internationalist rhetoric and aspiration the daily reality seems to have pulled grimly the other way.

Why so? Klaus Dodds’ book, Border Wars, brilliantly draws this disparate scene together, explaining that when it comes to national borders, however well-delineated and long-standing the demarcation lines – even those carved out by geography and nature – nothing in fact is ever settled. 

Natural barriers, for instance rivers and glaciers, shift with climate change: islands appear and disappear; treaties can be, and are, challenged and broken; restless populism presses for closing of porous frontiers and higher barriers “to keep them out”; old territorial clashes are inflamed; technology opens up seabed disputes, Artic and Antarctic quarrels and confrontations in increasingly crowded inner space.

Can we British sit back with sigh of relief… and note that as an island (mostly) the sea nicely defines our frontiers?

The information revolution, with its identity sharpening, its localism and, for the dispossessed, its glowing pictures of a better life to be had elsewhere, has poured ample fuel on the flames of border tensions, with countless mini-nationalisms revived from the past.

The 1982 (entry into force 1994) third UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, with its endowment of continental shelf rights to every recognised state, has played havoc with the freedom of the seas, opening up entirely new perceptions about international security and border concerns.

The old assumption that remote island chains and networks, such as exist across the Commonwealth, have no strategic significance is completely overturned. The old assumption, still seemingly prevalent in FCDO thinking, that remote island chains and networks, such as exist cross the Commonwealth, have "no strategic significance" is completely overturned. When we learn, for instance, that a state like the Maldives, because of its shape, has sea-bed sovereignty extending to a million square kilometres, along with every valuable mineral underneath and relatively immobile sea creatures on it (crabs included!) a very different security world emerges, and one which the Chinese in particular have been quick to spot in one costal or island state after another.

Can we British sit back with sigh of relief here and note that as an island (mostly) the sea nicely defines our frontiers, so none of these problems should worry us? Of course, Britain’s internal history is rife with border struggles, for well over a thousand years. The hope is that they have gone for good, but Ireland and Scotland keep teaching us that they may not have done. Besides, as daily boatloads of migrants also remind us, no country, like no man, is an island – not anymore. 

As we look around at the super-tense borders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk, the horrors of Tigray, the revolting misery at the US-Mexico frontiers, the murderous China-India clashes in the Himalayas, the Gaza-Israel stand-off, the Sinai, (just for a start from a long, long list), the answer is that we should be very worried indeed.

This excellently written and highly informative book reminds us why.

Lord Howell of Guildford is a Conservative peer

Border Wars: The Conflicts That Will Define Our Future
Written by: Klaus Dodds
Publisher: Ebury Press

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