Recently, I stumbled across this clip from the children’s cartoon Animaniacs, which in a little ditty lists the countries of the world:
The ditty is not actually accurate for two reasons:
- The map and composition are based on information that was current in the early 1990s, which is well over two decades ago;
- For musical purposes, not all countries are named and some countries are incorrectly named
Both of these reasons, in other words, highlight the incredible arbitrariness of national borders. Some I noticed in just one listen:
- “French Guiana” is one of those former European new world colonies that are still in old world hands today
- “Russia” in the video is really the USSR, comprising many regions that today are independent countries
- “Germany now in one piece”
- “England” is only one constituent country of the United Kingdom
- “Two Yemens” (Yemen used to be two separate states)
- “Sumatra and Borneo” — the island of Sumatra is entirely Indonesian (although it once had an active and violent separatist movement), while Borneo is divided between Indonesia and Malaysia
- “Somalia” is arguably two or three countries, depending on whether you recognise governments like those of Somaliland
- “Sudan” is now two countries
You can easily conceive of a very different world map, one where:
- French Guiana is its own country
- Russia/the former USSR are partitioned or united in different configurations
- Germany remains partitioned
- The United Kingdom is splintered into its constituent countries (some people are still trying to make this happen)
- Yemen is splintered (this potentially could happen, given the unrest today)
- Sumatra and Borneo could be countries of their own, or divided in some different way between Malaysia and Indonesia (Sumatra is actually culturally and linguistically more similar to Peninsular Malaysia than Borneo is)
- Somalia is splintered, and Somaliland could be a sovereign state in its own right
- Sudan would still be unified
All of those outcomes are either incredibly realistic, being actively worked towards, or once actually were the case. What reason do we have for these not being the case, other than accidents of history? If the British and the Dutch hadn’t signed a few pieces of paper because Napoleon invaded the Netherlands, Singapore might be part of the former Dutch East Indies (i.e. Indonesia) today, while Sumatra could be a thriving former British colony instead of a region of Indonesia. Nothing innate about the people of Singapore or Sumatra dictated that their borders be where they are today — in a larger sense, Napoleon had more to do with how their borders are set and where these people may travel than any living Singaporean or Sumatran does today. A similar story applies to just about any patch of land you might pick in Southeast Asia.
Depending on which side of a line you were born on, or on what side of the midnight hour the clock read when you were born, you could be Sudanese or South Sudanese. You could be Dominican or Haitian. You could be Pakistani or Bangladeshi. And based on these totally arbitrary factors, where you can live, travel, work, and study will forever be defined. If Napoleon invaded your former coloniser two centuries ago, maybe you wound up British or Singaporean instead of Dutch or Indonesian, or vice-versa. I do not see the sense in this.
There are two sensible ripostes I can think of:
- Some arbitrariness is inherent to the workings of the world, and necessary if we are not to go insane
- Countries and their unique institutions and cultures are incredibly relevant to shaping who you are
I would articulate the first as similar to observing that in the US, if you drink at 11:59PM in the evening you can be committing a crime, and 2 minutes later, simply exercising the natural right of an adult to enjoy an alcoholic beverage. But while arbitrary cutoffs may be necessary, at least these arbitrary cutoffs which lawmakers set are based on some non-arbitrary study. Governments (one hopes) consider the relevant medical and social science research in deciding an arbitrary minimum drinking age, just as they consider traffic engineering research in deciding an arbitrary speed limit. So remind me, why is it that Napoleon’s invasion of the Netherlands means someone born in Sumatra can’t work in Singapore today without begging for permission? What social science study are we relying on here?
As to the second point, I think this is all well and good. But it is one thing to suggest that countries are relevant to policymaking and our real lives. Nothing inherent to this point demands an automatic ban on foreigners living and working in your country. Maybe it demands a special language test. Maybe it demands an immigration surtax that funds language classes for immigrants or subsidises job training for displaced natives. The point I am making is that you cannot rely on the relevance of the institution of countries to demand a fetishisation of their arbitrary borders. I probably have more in common with a New Yorker of Asian descent than I do with a Borneo longhouse-dweller, yet I am a “foreigner” to the first and a “fellow citizen” to the second. Yet I am allowed to “impose” myself on the Bornean’s community and not the New Yorker’s, because ostensibly I have more in common with the Bornean and pose a threat to the New Yorker.
None of this means we should discard the nation-state, treat it as irrelevant, or even refuse to consider nationality in policymaking. Even borders have some relevance: they define the boundaries of a certain legal jurisdiction, and I would hesitate to just tear that down.
But we cannot take borders for granted. If we find ourselves suddenly declaring someone shouldn’t count or matter because of this arbitrary line, we need to be absolutely sure why we believe this. We cannot grant borders all the due deference in the world. When borders depend on which tyrant invaded your country a century or more ago, that’s a strong reason to instead believe borders might not be worth the paper they’re drawn on. Considering how often our fetish of borders gets in the way of exploring new ideas about citizenship or adhering to our most-cherished civilisational beliefs, this is no trivial matter.