Borders and identities - Let us change our way of thinking
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“We intend to be kind to everyone. We have many friends. But just as importantly, we aspire to remain ourselves.” Lee Kuan Yen (1923-2015), PM of Singapore (1959-1990)
A New Global Governance
The effects of globalisation are radically challenging our perception of the world. In order to respond effectively to current challenges, we must change our mindset, open up to the world, consider those around us and create a new global governance (Kerry Brown 2019, TEDx; Foucher 2019).
The geopolitical transition is underway. China is not only an economic powerhouse, but also a global geopolitical force. Meant to revitalise the “Silk Roads”, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) aims to control the strategic space in which world trade occurs. Inevitably, BRI is meant to shape future global trade routes, and whoever controls these routes will control the world.
US President Donald Trump is pursuing a policy to protect American interests. His “America first” strategy is challenging global governance as we know it. It is revealing, in various ways, the world’s “unpaid bills”, especially Europe’s (Foucher 2019).
The persistent institutional crisis within Europe follows the same logic. Created in the aftermath of the Second World War, the European Union is now divided, mainly about refugee flows, BRI, Chinese investments in Europe, and Brexit, to name a few issues.
It is therefore essential to consider the problem’s origins while avoiding ad hoc or, even worse, simplistic solutions, such as those advocated daily by populists on social networks. Thus, we must reset our mindset and have the audacity and imagination to create a new global governance – one that is fairer, more equitable and more responsive not only to current challenges, but to the needs of all humanity:
1. Identities and borders: How can the right to self-determination be respected and ensured without being divisive? How can we respect the sovereignty of states and territories without renouncing the positive effects of globalisation?
2. How is it possible to manage Chinese power, power exerted by a country that does not share universal values – the values of the West, especially those of Europe and the United States? How can we integrate this geopolitical force, one which is based on an authoritarian capitalist system and which is expanding not only economically but also geographically? This means a China that is engaging in a conquest of space without making war in the classic sense of the term.
3. Beyond borders: How can we integrate these two systems of opposing values into a new structure ensuring global cosmopolitical governance?
French geopolitics can provide us with part of the answer. It was Jacques Ancel (1879-1943) who added a very human concept – the identity of the heart – to geopolitical considerations (Ancel 1938, 97-99; Gauchon 2011, 11-12). His concept is based on the need for balance and harmony within a society, country or region.
According to Ancel, “The border is a political isobar, which fixes, for a time, the balance between two pressures: the balance of masses, the balance of forces.” In the same spirit: “A solid nation, one in harmony, exists even without visible borders.” (Ancel 1938, 196; Siegfried 1938 preface, VIII).
Geopolitics is the study of the relationships between space and power. It is a multidisciplinary undertaking that encompasses economic, political, cultural, historical and social dimensions. The term “space” refers to land, sea and cyberspace (Banik, 2016, 19-21).
Ancel’s geopolitics stand in contrast to the German geopolitics of Friedrich Ratzel
(1869-1904), which consider states to be “entities determined by people and territory” (Gauchon 2011, 7-9).
Klaus Haushofer (1869-1946) added the notion of “living space and pan-ideas” to this German geopolitical discussion. That is to say, he highlighted the potential solidarity of a people scattered throughout the world in order to justify the expansion of its living space. Conversely, Ancel placed the human being at the centre of his geopolitical considerations, i.e. man as creator. Thus, “human groups [are what] achieve a harmonious balance, ultimately recognising borders based on a common memory, history and language”. The result is “a nation of the heart in and of itself, non-rational” (Ancel 1938, 106; Gauchon 2011, 11, 7-9).
In Search of a New Balance
The characteristics of globalisation are ambivalent, even contradictory. Thanks to the Internet and digital technology, we are connected with each other to an ever-greater degree. We have access to many sources of information which provide us with seemingly endless facts and figures. The transparency and availability of information might increase, but knowledge and expertise do not necessarily follow suit.
At the same time, the world’s various actors are becoming both more interdependent and more competitive. Nation-states find themselves at odds with the transnational powers resulting from globalisation, such as global companies, economic and political associations and interest groups. All these transnational forces often act beyond the borders, rules and standards set by national laws. This cross-border activity requires greater strategic coordination between the various national and transnational actors (Banik 2016, 17-24).
Yet it is precisely the lack of coordination that causes not only a feeling of loss of control among the public, but also a general feeling of insecurity. Consequently, globalisation engenders an opening to the world, while simultaneously increasing the need to belong to a country or region. It is the need for identity, the need to remain ourselves in the whirlwind of globalisation.
This feeling of insecurity fuels the populist discourse of the far-right parties calling for a return to a Europe of Nations, a return to national thinking. According to this populist, simplistic perspective, the only means to regain control and sovereignty is to restore and strengthen visible borders within and outside the EU.
Moreover, our current world order contains a sort of ideological contradiction between two systems with opposing values: on one side, the West, the EU and the United States; on the other, China with its authoritarian capitalist system. This is highlighted by a renewal of the cult of personality surrounding “strong men”, such as Trump, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. This resurgence of personality cults reinforces the identity aspect in the relevant political strategies.
Despite the advent of these “strong men”, there is a lack of foresight among the entire political class, or even incompetence on its part, whatever the country of origin, at both the national and international levels. This lack of foresight manifests as the chaos found within international organisations and institutions, which all emerged following the Second World War and which are now struggling to find adequate solutions to current challenges (Banik 2016, 2019). The current political storytelling has become obsolete.
Due to the measurable and undeniable economic success of the authoritarian capitalist system in China, our democratic system is experiencing a crisis of confidence – a crisis that can be found mainly in the EU member states. Thus weakened, Europe is no longer able to respond to current geopolitical and economic challenges and is torn instead between two powers, the United States and China. In the absence of a real, common strategy, the EU is unable to find effective solutions to the issues faced by all actors, such as demographic shifts, increased global urbanisation, worldwide competition for natural resources, technological impacts on the labour market (particularly artificial intelligence), and international terrorism.
Borders and their Hallmarks
The process of transnationalisation and deterritorialisation inevitably brings us back to the issues of border, identity and nationality. Nationality is defined as the legal relationship between an individual and a country (Gauchon 2011, 33). It is obvious, even if it is difficult to admit: “Globalisation’s flows do not erase borders, countries, regions, territories or places” (Zajec 2016, 238). On the contrary, the more connected the world is, the more the debate around borders is crucial in any geopolitical discussion. “[N]o natural borders, no closed physical domains that can close states, nations ad aeternum.” (Ancel 1938, 194).
According to Ancel, borders can be described using the “three Ps”: precarious, persistent and permeable. In addition, borders can be visible or invisible, for example when moving from an urban area to a maritime one. (Ancel 1938, 97-99; Siegfried 1938 Preface, XI).
Arbitrary Borders and ‘Borders of Civilisation’
Ancel mainly differentiates between two types of border. On the one hand, there are the so-called arbitrary borders, which are tense and strategic, resulting from military claims. The treaties that delineate these borders are temporal and purely based on the national interests of the states involved.
“Borders of civilisation”, on the other hand, are more permanent, since they are based on a memory, history and common language resulting from the balance achieved by a specific group of human beings. Such borders are “nevertheless more complicated, because they are subject to many political and commercial interpretations”. Even if commercial interpretations aim to “pave the way” and not to “enclose” as military interpretations do (Ancel 1938, 102-107), “paving the way” also means, in our current world, a conquest, an expansion, sometimes using military means, into the territory of others.
BRI – A True Opening of Borders?
The positive effects of globalisation can largely be seen as “paving the way”. Even if BRI is based on a commercial justification, the new Silk Roads are nevertheless closely linked with the idea of geographic and, above all, geopolitical expansion. China’s geopolitical influence is growing, especially in the Eurasian region as a whole, a region which is currently of great strategic import. Thus, BRI is part of China’s security strategy and is developing considerable geostrategic significance.
For years, China has been investing heavily in its military sector. Although the 7.5% increase in 2019 is less than the increase in 2018 (8.1%), the country plans to spend CNY1,190 billion, or €156 billion, to achieve Xi’s goal of having its armed forces “combat ready” (Economic Review, 2019).
The Conquest of Space Without Making War
Having already had a large army, especially in terms of manpower, China has now become a great naval force, a fact Westerners are only beginning to acclimate to, since, for them, China has traditionally been a weak country located very far away. BRI, the revival of the Silk Roads, is the counterpart to Trump’s “America first” policy. The initiative increasingly has military implications: “BRI will likely result in increased overseas access and presence for the People’s Liberation Army” (Council on Foreign Relations, 2018; CNBC Asia Politics, 2018) and “Projects related to the BRI have become a prime market for Chinese private security companies, as Chinese investment expands into countries that are either experiencing or emerging from conflict” (Merics China Monitor, 2018). In addition, the majority of workers on BRI construction sites are Chinese and not members of the local workforce. As a result, the initiative is the manifestation of a “China first” policy, one that primarily pursues Chinese interests. The positive impact on countries in the BRI region is quite limited. Worse yet, these countries are becoming more dependent on China, playing the role of debtor to Beijing’s creditor.
In addition, China has skilfully bundled its civil and military interests under the rubric “security”, a concern that now determines its internal and external strategy. In 2017, the budget of the Ministry of the Interior even exceeded that of the Ministry of Defence by 19% (Schrittmacher 2019, 35). Preserving external security means safeguarding China’s sovereignty, while preserving internal security means ensuring internal stability and control by the Communist Party of China (CPC). Despite the apparent opening of its external borders, China is increasingly enclosing its population, especially through censorship – its invisible border.
The term “harmony” has acquired a special meaning since Xi came to power. He has been the CPC’s “president for life” since 2018. All civil, military and administrative power rests with him and he is pursuing a strategy to protect China’s internal and external interests. As a result, China is extending its borders without making war or conquering territory in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, it is conquering geostrategic space by expanding its geopolitical influence. In China, it seems there is no longer a state, there is only the Communist Party.
In keeping with Jacques Ancel’s analysis, especially from the perspective of the “three Ps” – the persistence, precariousness and permeability of borders – developments such as “America first”, China’s Social Credit System, its Corporate Social Credit System (Le Monde 2019), BRI and Brexit are all challenging the very concept of borders.
Faced by two superpowers, China and the United States, the EU is experiencing a full-blown identity crisis and finds itself confronted with a major strategic dilemma. “A solid nation in harmony exists even without visible borders” (Ancel 1938, 196; Siegfried 1938, preface VIII). Neither solid nor in harmony, the EU is being dragged into a false discussion on border reinforcement. The visible strengthening of borders does not address the root of the problem.
The solution can be found instead in strengthening the solidity of and identity within the European population. The only basis for a stronger and more harmonious Europe is to ensure that the different identities within the Union are perceived positively and that the shared – and not common – interests of its member states are protected and promoted.
China has introduced a new ideology derived from the notion of “harmony”, which is the key factor in its all-important internal and external strategy. As noted, the aim of BRI is not only to build up a huge network of commercial infrastructure in order to “develop wealth in the region and preserve peace, friendship and trust and understanding between different peoples”, as the CPC has expressed it. BRI is also an integral part of the Party’s plan for preserving national unity and internal stability. Harmony is China’s “leitmotiv”, its mantra while it pursues a policy of expansion, of conquest, geographically and geopolitically, without resorting to armed force.
Although less elegant, Donald Trump’s policy maintains the same logic: the return to national sovereignty, to protecting and defending national interests. The US government has renounced many policy and trade agreements in order to better protect its interest and to expand its sphere of influence. Stability and preserving unity, identity and sovereignty are the top priorities.
Thus, the balance of power, the field of engagement between the countries and actors is changing. Two systems with opposing values are facing off in a race for global leadership. The EU finds itself squarely in the centre of this field of engagement.
The EU: A Political Union of Shared Interests
The European Union has three major problems: First, it lacks a real strategy or vision; second, the European institutions do not function in a truly democratic manner; third, the different national identities within the EU are misperceived and, subsequently, hard to manage. It is precisely this unsuccessful management of European identities that fuels the discourse on strengthening borders as the sole remedy for the Union’s difficulties.
The EU is not a national power like the United States, China and Russia, but a “forward-thinking” geopolitical actor that must find its own way as globalisation progresses. Without a new political narrative, Europe must inevitably lose influence on the international scene. Only close cooperation between EU member states and the promotion of shared interests can ensure that Europe will become a power to reckon with on the geopolitical stage, on par with China and the United States.
First and foremost, the emotional charge must be removed from the discourse on borders and national identities. Europe must ensure a space exists where people can live in freedom, a space where we can live our different European identities. Were this to be realised, it would not be a threat to Brussels but, on the contrary, a complementary force ensuring the right to self-determination.
In addition, the European institutions must be democratised. What is needed is a European Parliament that reflects the voice of Europeans and that, after elections, forms a truly European government, an assembly of specialists and experts that transcends party politics. The EU must stop being divided along party lines. Were that the case, the EU would become the main driver for improving the democratic system.
Democracy should never be called into question, but democratic structures must be adapted on an ongoing basis. A harmonious Europe is the only way to ensure a secure space – one surrounded by borders – that defends its shared political, economic and geopolitical interests. This is how the EU could take the lead in creating a new type of global governance. In view of the weaknesses of nation-states such as China and the United States, Europe is in a favourable position to lead the way in building a new system of cosmopolitical governance – a cosmopolitical system with “borders of civilisation” which might be visible, arbitrary or even invisible, but which, above all, would not divide but provide the framework needed to consolidate the required cosmopolitical standards.
Conclusion: New “Storytelling” for the EU
As noted, Ancel emphasises the human notion in his geopolitical approach. The important thing is to recognise and calmly accept the feeling of belonging to a country, to a region –accept, that is, the very natural need for identity. Such an identity ensures the political unity that would sustain the evolution towards a new Europe and, subsequently, towards a new global governance. A European identity must be cultivated, in addition to the various national identities. This European identity, moreover, can help define the objective interests shared by most member states.
Globalisation is forcing us to think and act in terms of geo-economics (Overholt 2018). Safeguarding economic interests has become imperative. The EU must build a political union of shared interests and must create strategic alliances as a result. The important thing is to build these alliances in the spirit of cooperation and not, as is the case in today's world, in the spirit of competition. Facing today’s challenges is only possible in a spirit of cooperation and tolerance, especially since the ultimate goal is not only to improve our democratic processes, but to move humanity forward as well. According to Ancel, a border is “a political isobar, which fixes, for a time, the balance between two pressures: the balance of masses, the balance of forces” (Ancel 1938, 195). In this spirit, we must change our global governance and, above all, our political narratives.
A new “storytelling” is required since today’s political practices and narrative strategies have lost their significance. The balance of power has changed radically. Neither the West nor China will alter its political system. It is therefore necessary to integrate China into the new global governance, even if it clearly does not adhere to our values.
Shared interests and common cosmopolitical standards must be defined in order to ensure social justice (Nida Rümelin 2017, 70, 178-179) and greater equity, particularly in the distribution of natural resources, in order to effectively combat global poverty. Globalisation requires the establishment of more regulations, standards, laws and coordination between national and transnational forces.
The real problem does not stem from the issue of borders. Borders will always exist, even in the globalised world. “There are no problems with borders. There are only problems with nations.” (Ancel 1938, 196). It is important to tolerate and accept different national identities and lifestyles and, above all, to recognise that we all live in a world which requires more and not fewer regulations and laws.
Moreover, only the existence of a true European identity can ensure the necessary political unity for evolving towards a solid, harmonious Europe. By acting boldly, this new Europe can take the lead in establishing a new cosmopolitical governance. What is needed is a politically united Europe that asserts its shared objective interests and values by creating a space providing freedom and tolerance. Consequently, we must revitalise an idea advanced by Jacques Ancel: “We do not change borders except by force; we change our minds” (Ancel 1938; Lomnica 1938 Foreword, 2).
Let us change our way of thinking
Note: This is a translation of an article originally written in French and published in“Les frontières revisitées”, sous la direction de Jean-Paul Chagnollaud et Xavier Richet, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2020 (Partie III, p.165-179).
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Author, speaker and guest lecturer on current geopolitical, economic and political issues related to China, EU and the US
Blog: Katja Banik's blog