The Rise of Linear Borders
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies. Please check back later for the full article.
The central characteristic distinguishing international borders in the 21st century from those of earlier historical eras is their linearity: their appearance as a series of one-dimensional points connected by straight lines. International relations (IR) often takes for granted the global-historical process that brought this about, but because cross-border relations are the main substance of inquiry in IR, many theories and areas of study in the field contain some perspective on that process, at least implicitly. These perspectives can be divided into historical accounts of the origins of linear borders on one hand and discussions concerning their implications on the other.
Explanations of linear borders often refer to the emergence of the nation-state in Europe, viewing modern borders in either a realist or a rationalist vein: as hardened battle lines of intense geopolitical competition, or as a rational state institution minimizing uncertainty and transaction costs. Constructivists have also drawn attention to social epistemes and cartographic practices making it possible to imagine polities as bounded by precisely demarcated lines before boundaries were actually created as such. Beyond these perspectives one might also examine the growth of a professional surveying practice around private property as well as the construction of linear boundaries as civilized, both of which were closely associated with colonialism and imperialism.
As for the consequences of modern borders, debate has proceeded in several directions. One argument posits that the introduction and perseverance of colonial borders in the Global South has contributed to “state failure,” an argument that has been criticized for its assumption that more natural borders are somehow possible. Another argument, which can be traced back to 19th-century geography, is that precise, fixed boundaries promote peace in international relations. Finally, it could also be argued that linear boundaries contribute to the privileging of certain kinds of geographical expertise over others and make it possible to imagine territory as a structure that is fundamentally the same across the world, regardless of context.