Milo van Bokkum
Why Borders Are Where They Are
A thought-provoking journey along some of the world’s most bemusing borders
Borders divide the familiar from the foreign, the Self from the feared Other, and with that are a persistent source of conflict. And yet we continue drawing and redrawing them, while clinging to the worlds marked out by these imaginary lines. Where does this fascination come from? In Border Regions, journalist Milo van Bokkum sets out to understand why the world map looks the way it does, and how people have lived along some of its most bewildering boundaries.
Everywhere on the planet, humans delimit their land from that of their neighbors. These borders not only constitute millions of kilometres of identity, but are also an endless source of surprising anecdotes. Beginning with the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which divided the Christian world into Catholic and Protestant nations, Van Bokkum flits through history and across continents, examining various geographical phenomena.
We learn that exclaves – small parts of a country separated from its main body, like Soviet-era West Berlin or Kaliningrad today – can number in the hundreds, like those between India and Bangladesh, and that countries can even exist within countries within countries, with legal conundrums for their residents. The straight lines of the world map were indeed drawn with a ruler, mostly by distant Western diplomats, either for ease or political gain, but almost always without consulting the original inhabitants. Meanwhile, mountains and rivers form natural barriers and often ‘work’ as borders, but rivers can suddenly change course or be straightened out – leading to pockets of a country suddenly finding themselves on the opposite shore. In the Black and South China Seas, the question of when a rock becomes an island is a contested matter of foreign policy. Then there are regions no has ever claimed, where new countries like Liberland are currently trying to be established, but there are also areas, called ‘condominiums’, where multiple countries share a claim. In Vanuatu and neutral Moresnet, Van Bokkum reveals that it is possible – with a bit of creativity and cooperation – for nations to govern together peacefully, rather than fight for control.
Interleaved with eye-catching historical maps, Border Regions is an enthusiastic call to rethink the anxious lines we draw between ourselves. By bringing attention to the total arbitrariness of many of the world’s borders, Van Bokkum hopes that we might begin to place less value on them, or at the very least not see them as divides, but as connections.