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  • Of Note:Broken Borders
  • Jonathan Raviv

Borders are critical when considering the issue of state sovereignty. They delineate the inside from the outside, and they define the territory upon which the government is responsible for enforcing law and order. The ease with which the government can achieve its power-projection aims relies in part on the nature of its borders. When they are broken, the government is liable to fail, as has been the case in many places throughout Africa and the Middle East. These more popular examples of broken borders, however, are all examples of border discontinuities, or gaps. From the Democratic Republic of Congo to Afghanistan, porous borders make it difficult to create stable nations. Non-contiguous borders, a different type of broken border, are less prevalent. Yet they are equally vital to global stability now and in the future.

The two types of broken borders have to be separated because despite having similar implications, their solutions are very different. A porous border requires countries essentially to "fill in the gaps" with more policing, more power, and more protection. This process has gone on for millennia, and it is fairly well understood, even if this understanding does not or cannot always translate into results. Dealing with non-contiguous borders, on the other hand, may be a more difficult challenge for which there is less historical precedent.

Whether the nation is made up of several islands, or divided by another country, non-contiguous borders pose a challenge to the ability of a government to enforce the rule of law. State strength suffers when borders are non-contiguous, as it is harder for the government to monitor its territory as effectively as a state that has only one land mass. Jemaah Islamiyah effectively operates across Southeast Asia, thanks in part to the weak centralized authority of decentralized island nations. Non-contiguous borders also make it more difficult for nations to claim soveeignty over territory. The Philippines, for instance, conflicts with China, Malaysia, and Taiwan over rights to a part of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Indonesia has encountered trouble in asserting control over East Timor. The People's Republic of China has been unable to gain control of Taiwan, which enjoys de facto independence despite the mainland's claims. Hawaii was reluctant to submit to American authority, while the purchase of Alaska at first was considered a joke because of its irrelevance and distance. Evidently, non-contiguous borders have been, and continue to be, issues worthy of our attention. [End Page 25]

Non-contiguous borders are highly unusual, and dealing with them depends not only on the nature of the government, but also on what lies between the different parts of the state. Alaska, for example, is a state like any other for two reasons: The United States is able to project power over a long distance, and Canada is friendly. If the United States were weak, or if Canada were a mortal foe, the situation might be much different. In the case of Indonesia, the central government in Jakarta exercises sovereignty across the water to thousands of islands. In these examples, non-contiguous borders have been an issue, but not an insurmountable challenge.

But some non-contiguities present veritable problems. A future Palestine probably will be interrupted by Israel. The combined weakness of a future Palestinian government and its relationship with Israel make this issue uniquely challenging. Azerbaijan, which controls the non-contiguous territory of Nakhichevan, also has not settled its dispute with Armenia over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabagh, which lies within Azerbaijan's borders. Again, the nature of the problem relates to Azerbaijan's sour relationship with Armenia and its own inability to gain control over the enclave. Non-contiguous borders, therefore, could have dire affects on stability in the Middle East and in the Caucasus.

In devising non-contiguous border solutions to problems, as might have to be the case in either a future Palestine or in Azerbaijan, it is going to be important to think creatively. The traditional approach of drawing lines and establishing power is not going to work, because in each case one country separates another. Above all it will...


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