Benedict Anderson, a political scientist and historian, defined the nation as “an imagined political community” in his book Imagined Communities, a critical study of nationalism. Anderson believes nations as inherently limited and sovereign, and the word ‘imagined’ suggests that it is a social construct. In fact, it is not only in the global age we inhabit that there is no justification for national boundaries – there has never been a need for such an idea if not for the desire of certain countries who use this construct for the purposes of conquest and territorial expansion. This essay will first examine how national boundaries came to be and are matters of construct, before critically examining its use in today’s global age.
The concept of a nation and national boundaries are such a matter of abstraction that they require definition. A nation is a group of culturally similar people who believe they belong together and deserve to govern themselves. It is not ‘natural’ – people ‘believe’ because they are taught and conditioned to do so. In school, we draw the national flag, say the national pledge; we celebrate National Day and we learn about our country’s history. We do not personally know every other citizen of the same country, but when we recognise that we are indeed, from the same county, we feel a sense of solidarity. We support our country’s teams at the Olympics and share in their glory; we get upset should other countries disrespect our sovereignty and allow their ships to enter national waters without permission.
It may also be important to consider its origins and the historical legacy of colonialism. National boundaries are concepts which originated from Europe, as a result of conflict, mostly the religious wars in the 16th-17th century. The Peace of Augsburg in 1555 and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 were treaties which ushered in the notion of territorially sovereign states, and the concept continues to thrive because of them. The period of colonialism by European countries also led to the forceful imposition of such concepts in various places, whether Southeast Asia or Africa, where such concepts were not necessary before. In Africa, people were organised in small tribes and in fact, many of them continue to be. This is also why civil wars are aplenty – different tribes within the same sovereign state do not actually see themselves as part of the same country or entity. This is possibly why nationalism and the construction of national states have failed in so many places.
This unequal power structure reproduced by national boundaries continues to ring true for the global age in which we inhabit today. Firstly, national boundaries which are drawn have implications for migration. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 59.5 million individuals around the world have been displaced involuntarily. What makes them displaced, however, is the concept of national boundaries. They are considered to be displaced only because they left the country of their origin, and are not welcome in another. While national borders are not particularly restrictive to the highly mobile, cosmopolitan parts of the population, those who are refugees are usually shunned as they are seen as unproductive and resource-grabbing. The often-raised question of “Why are we providing them with housing etc. when they are not one of us?” reveals the mentality of scarcity and how citizens are conditioned to believe that the life of one of their own is more important to one not of their own.
National boundaries are also problematic for economic development. They are used for wealthier countries to suppress those which are less powerful. National boundaries restrict trade between countries, and some countries like America also impose tariffs on imports for particular industries in order to protect their own. While there are the ironically termed “Free-Trade-Agreements”, they allow goods to flow freely only between countries which are part of the agreement, and often exemplify unequal balances of power between countries. The developing countries are made to open up their economies so that the wealthier can purchase their natural resources, but they may not be given the same kind of access to those of the developed thanks to protectionist policies. On the other hand, multinational companies which are footloose in their operations often have manufacturing in one country, research and development in another and their markets in another. These companies thus facilitate the flow of people, goods and resources across national boundaries, and countries suspend concepts of sovereignty in order to woo their investment.
Overall, the concept of national boundaries are thus increasingly being challenged in the global age we are in, whether by the increasing prominence of cities or multinational companies. In China, being from Beijing would already distinguish one from someone from Shanghai. When Trump won the presidential elections, some in California suggested ‘independence’. After all, national boundaries also vary in size. Some countries have up to a billion people, like China. Being ‘imagined’, the larger they are in scale, the more fragile the common identity is. Cities have thus emerged as a more probable scale to construct a singular identity around.
What we have thus is a world where national boundaries are used only to the advantage of those in power. In the past, sovereignty was used by colonial masters to justify conquest. Today, it is reinforced by countries trying to keep out refugees. What has changed is that it is also used more selectively in our global age. It is invoked when it suits the countries’ interests, yet disregarded when countries want to attract multinational companies and talented manpower. National boundaries thus contribute to unequal outcomes for individuals and countries, and are not so easily justified in today’s world.