Thursday, March 26, 2009

New borders

In response to global climate change, Italy and Switzerland are considering a revision of their common border.

Historically, borders are determined in one of three ways. The first is by an international commission that examines economic, ethnic, defense, and transportation concerns and attempts to gerrymander suitable borders between states. This civilized process would, at first glance, appear to have great potential for creating satisfying and peaceful borders. Instead, you often end up with borders that have all of the flaws of any decision made by committee and that leave everyone unhappy. A good example of the failure of this method is the set of borders imposed on Central and Balkan Europe after WWI. As soon as everyone had a chance to catch their breath from the first Great War, the launched a second one to escape their unjust boundaries.*

The second, and more ancient, form of border creation is for one country to invade another, beat them into submission, and tell them where the new border will be. Despite the clear injustice of it, this method has been surprisingly effective in creating lasting borders. After WWII, the Balkan states ended up with roughly the same borders that they had before the war (the only significant exception being the Romania / Bulgaria border). Those borders have remained peaceful ever since.**

The third, and oldest, type of border is created when two people agree to stay on their respective sides of some natural feature of the land. This kind of border making predates states. The most common forms of this type of border are water shaped: rivers and drainage divides. While this kind of border works well for small bands of people, it is not especially well suited for larger groups of people in modern states. In many cases, the groups of people who live in the mountains have more in common with the people across the ridge than they do with the people in the valley and the valley people have more in common with the folks across the river than they do with the folks uphill. Also, the features of the landscape are not as permanent as we would like to think. Rivers in flood have a bad habit of jumping their banks and carving new channels, sometimes kilometers away from the old channels. Mountain ridges have their own problems.

Most of the border between Italy and Switzerland follows ridges. Where the rock shows, there has been no problem marking and maintaining the border. Where the ridges are buried by glaciers, the borders have followed the main dome of the glacier. Now, with the glaciers changing shape and perhaps disappearing all together, the border is moving. Switzerland has no problem sending a few surveyors to move the border markers a few hundred meters this way or that, but Italy needs to pass a new law for every adjustment. They expect to have the law ready for signing in a few weeks. The Italians have also approached Austria and France to do the same along their borders.

As long as no homes or businesses are involved, it might not be obvious why countries should be in such a rush to determine the ownership of a few square kilometers of uninhabited ice and rock. In part, the rush is caused by the obsessive desire of all governments to know exactly what they do and do not have control over at any given moment. It's just part of their nature. In a slightly more human time scale (days, weeks, that sort of thing), the big deal is over what the melting ice might reveal. You never know when the ice might surrender a neolithic hunter or two.

What surprises me about this story is how smoothly it's going. All the major Italian political parties recognized that this was something that needed to be done and did it. The party in power even asked the opposition to write the actual bill. If such a thing came up in the United States today, the paranoid, conspiracy buffs who make up most of the Republican base would be howling that the whole issue was a plot by our non-citizen president to undermine American sovereignty. They would tell each other that this was just the first step leading to blue-helmeted Canadian troops, swarming out of their secret bases in the national parks, seizing our guns, turning our children into homosexuals, and herding all right thinking patriots into reeducation camps where they will be turned into Soylent Green.

* Committee borders often fail to meet their own stated objectives of rationality. When the commissioners lack any knowledge of the region under consideration, they either make wild guesses about what might be there or draw big straight lines. Most of the borders in Africa were made this way.
** The Wars of Yugoslav Succession don't count. The borders in question there were not international borders; they were internal boundaries designed by commission. In 1993, I had a chance to talk to the head of the commission that drew the boundary between Croatia and Serbia in the Voivodinia. Lacking good examples to guide them-- this was the Balkans after all--they had to make it up as they went along.

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