The Atlas of borders

Interview with Bruno Tertrais

Alain Boinet for Humanitarian Challenges. Hello Bruno Tertrais, you have just published, with Delphine Papin, The atlas of borders (Trad: l’Atlas des frontières, Les Arènes): why did you choose this approach to borders, walls, migrations and conflicts?

Bruno Tertrais. Borders are a barometer of geopolitics. We chose this theme because there was no atlas of borders, even though it is a key to understanding all the major international geopolitical issues between states and even beyond, because we do not only deal with these relations, even though it is at the heart of our subject. Generally speaking, borders are a good indicator of international relations, and this is even more the case today than it was a few years ago, since we are talking about borders again, more so than twenty years ago.

Humanitarian Challenges. In your atlas, there is a chapter entitled “The world at the foot of the wall” which begins in 1910 and continues until 2020.  It is striking to see the multiplication of walls, barriers and fences from the 1980s onwards, which then took off from 2010. What are the geopolitical reasons for this? 

Bruno Tertrais. There are several reasons. The first is simply that land borders are better marked out and defined than they were 50 or 60 years ago. There are relatively few borders left to be fixed on land. Of course, we know about the major disputes that are shaking up world geopolitics, but the barriers are a way of saying: “my state ends here and yours begins there”. It’s a way of asserting sovereignty, and it’s something that’s very popular among recent nations.

In terms of their growing popularity, as you rightly point out, there were only about 15 barriers at the end of the Cold War, there are now – although the number is debatable – over 70. Why ?

Simply because the barrier is perceived as a protection against the outside world and in reaction to globalisation, the increase in flows and trafficking, it represents an attractive solution, particularly in the last ten years or so against illegal migration, trafficking of all kinds and terrorism (whether it is effective or not is debatable, but that’s another subject) and now against pandemics too. The barrier that materialises the international border is therefore quite popular, the wall itself on the other hand, is quite rare, since they are rarely made of hard material, they are mostly barriers, barbed wire, electronic barriers.

It is important to stress that these are not Berlin walls, which are very rare. An iron curtain is to prevent people from leaving. These are walls to prevent entry, which is philosophically and legally different.

Finally, building a barrier does not mean closing the border. You can have barriers with almost open borders, and you can have few barriers with closed borders. For example, between Morocco and Algeria, there was no barrier for a very long time but the border was closed. So we have to distinguish between physical and legal closure.

South Korea has erected a barbed wire wall on the border with North Korea in Paju on 12 February 2017

Humanitarian Challenges. In connection with these barriers, in your atlas you point out that there were 20 states in 1920, 51 in the UN in 1945, 193 today. How do you explain this considerable increase in the number of states in such a short time? And above all, what does this tell us about our human species? How could this trend have been forgotten in relation to the globalisation movement that has long captured all the attention and analysis? 

Bruno Tertrais. When we talk about this globalisation, at least as it appeared in the early 1990s, we are talking about several different things. On the one hand, we talk about the freedom of flows, of people, goods, capital, the increase in trade… But globalisation was also perceived as the idea of a world community that would go beyond the states, so these are two quite different phenomena. The globalisation of flows has not prevented the creation of new states, on the contrary. These states were created over a century, first by the dissolution of empires, by their fragmentation, by decolonisation of course, and then at the end of the Cold War, by the break-up of former multinational states. So these are two very different phenomena that have led to this proliferation of states. Today, there are nearly 200 states, the number of members of the United Nations is 193, it is possible that others will be created, more probably by fragmentation than by reunion, but it can be said that there is a certain stabilisation of this process and we live more than ever in what historians call a “Westphalian” world, where states are sovereign and remain the main stone of international society.

Border between India and Bangladesh, ©EPA Keystone

Humanitarian challenges. Some researchers call for a break with the Westphalian world, and think that states no longer have a monopoly, that it is necessary to go beyond geopolitical rationality and that from now on, in a globalised, interdependent and unequal world, the social link is the condition for security and development. Do you share this position, as you write in your Atlas “the borders have won”?

Bruno Tertrais. The link between societies is not necessarily antinomic to the existence of states. Societies can, and indeed do, have more and more links beyond the creation of new states: social networks, the internet, satellite television have made it possible to create links between peoples, individuals and communities that were more difficult thirty years ago. This is especially true for immigrant communities in all countries. It is much easier today to keep in touch with one’s country and community of origin than it was only thirty or forty years ago. Some would say that this makes integration more difficult, but that’s another subject. As for the theses you mention, I would say that the world does not agree. Perhaps it would be desirable to dissolve the states, but that is a minority position. It doesn’t matter what I wish or don’t wish, what I simply note is that the national claim remains a very strong claim, that the demand for a nation-state or the constitution of a state remains a powerful desire, and that whatever one’s personal wishes may be, the state remains today the main brick of the international system, which does not prevent more important cooperation on global issues, whether they be reflections on global warming or migratory issues. Are other forces active and powerful on the international scene? Of course, whether they are NGOs or multinationals, but they have always been very powerful. We sometimes forget that the East India Company, for example, had more power than most states. So it’s not something fundamentally new, powerful NGOs have been around since the late 19th century, but these forces are additional to states rather than substitutes for them.

Map – Some forty walls around the world – Credits: Camille Renard – Radio France

Humanitarian Challenges. How do you see the role of demography in your analysis? For the record, there were 2.5 billion of us in 1950, and we will be almost 10 billion a century later, in 2050. Africa had 229 million inhabitants in 1950, 1.3 billion today and 2.5 billion in 30 years. What could be the consequences of this demography in Africa, a continent where you say that two thirds of the borders are not yet demarcated?

Bruno Tertrais. First of all, the link between the two is mainly on the migration issue, and on this issue, we sometimes hear things in the media that are not entirely accurate. The increase in the world’s population does not automatically result in a similar increase in international migration. The proportion of migrants in the world, in the sense of the UN definition – that is, people who settle in a country other than the one in which they were born for at least 12 months – has not increased much. It remains at a few percent, so of course it is increasing in number, but in percentage terms, it cannot be said that the men and women of the world are settling abroad more and more over time. What is easier, however, are temporary moves, trips, and short work stays, which have become more frequent. But I would stress this point: migration has not increased significantly in proportion.

On Africa, I think you are familiar with the analyses in the book “The Rush to Europe”. I have methodically dismantled the figures given by the author in this book on demography for several reasons. Firstly, it should be pointed out that African transcontinental migration is increasing, not because Africa is the poorest continent but precisely because it is beginning to develop. As development economists know, it is when a country begins to climb the development ladder that long-distance migration beyond its region of origin begins to increase. It is true that the phenomenon described by Stephen Smith is a reality that will continue, but where the figures seem far-fetched to me is that they are based on nothing at all. All the projections made by the author in his book are very easy to dismantle. Emigration from the African continent is not only to Europe, but also to the Gulf States, or, increasingly, to the United States. This emigration will continue to increase, but certainly not to the extent described in this book, which refers to Africa as a “waiting room to Europe for a billion people” and bases its analyses on almost nothing. On this subject, one can say that the reasoning is right but the results are wrong.

I would also point out that Africans emigrate relatively little, compared to other regions of the world, and when they do, it is for the most part to immediately neighbouring countries, with well-known migration corridors, from the Sahel to coastal Africa, etc. Finally, the African continent is the continent where there is the greatest difference between ‘intention to migrate’ and actual migration.

Humanitarian Challenges. What could be the consequences of this demography in Africa, a continent where you say that two thirds of the borders are not yet delimited or demarcated? The confrontation between demography and the absence of borders…? 

Bruno Tertrais. There is not necessarily a link between the two. The increase in population in a country does not mean more or less border problems. These are two largely separate issues, except when there is a very rapid increase in population in a border region that is not necessarily open to cross-border traffic, but they are relatively separate issues today.

Humanitarian challenges. The demographer Michel Garenne pointed out in an interview published in 2017 in “Le Monde” that the six Sahelian countries he had studied: Senegal, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Chad, which had 89 million people in 2015, were on a trajectory that would take their population to 240 million in 2050 and well beyond that, 540 million in 2100. Given the situation we are experiencing in the Sahel (conflict, insecurity, climate change, problems of access to subsistence resources, governance that is not equal to the challenges, etc.), what responses do you think are necessary to control the situation that will result from this ‘demographic time bomb’, to use Michel Garenne’s expression?

Bruno Tertrais. As far as the demographic situation in the Sahel is concerned, it is indeed breaking a number of records. It is in the south of Niger, in the region of Maradi, that we have the highest fertility rate in the world today. It is true that even if the demographic transition is already a reality on part of the African continent, there is a specific Sahelian problem with a combination of weak states, a demography that some describe as galloping and a fairly low level of development with pandemic violence. As demography is a tanker, things evolve extremely slowly, so over the next twenty years, demographic history is, whatever happens, written in the region. Beyond 20 years, it is still possible to act, particularly on three levers:

On the states, because these are states that are often very little present outside the capitals, then on the education of women and girls, which is an important and extremely necessary lever for development: access to family planning, to contraception for women, etc. But it is also a question of men, because large families are generally the result of very strong pressure from the men in the home. In fact, educating girls for development is formidable and just as indispensable as changing men’s mentalities, which is just as important if we are to imagine stabilising the population of these countries in 20 or 30 years’ time.

In Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, people flee under the fire of the Nyiragongo volcano, 27 May 2021. GUERCHOM NDEBO / AFP

Humanitarian Challenges. Let’s change continents while staying on the issue of borders. On 12 May, an Azerbaijani armed unit entered Armenian territory, which led French President Emmanuel Macron to recall his attachment to the territorial integrity of Armenia. Is this the return of the fait accompli, of territorial annexation, of the questioning of borders, as the Russians and Turks sometimes do, and with what risks of extension? 

Bruno Tertrais. Well, not quite, because what was at stake on the strict level of the borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan was rather the re-establishment of the existing border. From my point of view, the November 2020 conflict, the Azerbaijani offensive, is more a sign of border resilience than the announcement of a new border change. The international border, the one recognised by most of the major players, is the one that has been re-established by the Azerbaijani offensive. On 12 May last, there was a particular episode on which the two states do not have the same version, and on which I will refrain from making a decision since the great problem in this region, as in other countries of the former USSR, is that the borders were not well delimited at the time of the Soviet Union, because they were borders between republics and not international borders. In 1991, both sides were left with relatively undetailed Soviet maps, so that there are border accidents is neither surprising, nor necessarily a sign of the other side’s willingness to change the border status quo. Speaking of Russia and Turkey, you are right to say that there are certainly neo-imperialist powers in the attempts to challenge the current international system that sometimes play with borders and in some cases have changed the international border in a coercive way, such as Crimea. The question is whether Crimea heralds a rethinking of the borders around these imperialist powers or whether it will remain an exception or an accident.

Humanitarian challenges. There is also the case of the Turkish offensive in north-eastern Syria which now occupies a significant territory of a Kurdish settlement area, not to mention their presence in the Idlib region in the north-west.

Bruno Tertrais. Once again, this is not a change in the border status quo. It is an occupation, but it is not a change of border, factually speaking. The symbolic act of changing the border line is a very far-reaching act that these countries prefer not to take, and are often content to have influence, including in the form of an occupation, which may last.

The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh allows us to talk about the historical legacy of borders. We have to live with what we have, since, as we can see very clearly in the Balkans or in Asia or elsewhere, as soon as we try to justify the possession of this or that territory by history, sometimes going back a long way, we can call everything into question. This is why international law is there as a regulatory instrument.

Humanitarian challenges. Doesn’t demography in Africa risk leading to the multiplication of borders, walls, migrations and conflicts, both in Africa and in its immediate environment, while simultaneously challenging these walls and borders, while the breaks are not accepted by the international community? For example, in its recent history, Rwanda has asserted territorial claims over the province of Kivu in the DRC. 

Bruno Tertrais. Demography in itself has no impact on borders. Rwanda’s borders are the same today as they were 50 years ago. If we are talking about saying that the rapid increase in a country’s population in a relatively small area can lead the state concerned to extend its influence over adjacent regions and areas, then yes, this is certainly true, but it is not an automatic mechanical phenomenon and is as much the result of a desire for power as of demographic pressure: the case of Rwanda is an example. But this does not necessarily translate into changes in the status quo of borders. When we see the changes in Nigeria, which will be a demographic giant by the end of the century, I think that the main problems that will arise will be more internal than international. We must not fall into demographic determinism, especially on the issue of borders.

Humanitarian challenges. In this world that you describe, what could be the role of humanitarians in the future? What would you advise them to do in the coming world? 

Bruno Tertrais. Humanitarians have called for borders to be crossed. Moreover, the expression “without borders” has been copied throughout the world by a certain number of organisations and movements that seek to go beyond borders while respecting them, but emphasising the need to be able to intervene, help and assist in sovereign territories. This is a question on which little progress has been made because the principle of the responsibility to protect, which was pushed by France in particular, is still contested by many states. I believe that the classic humanitarian dilemma, which you know better than I do, which consists – the Red Cross school and the MSF school to put it simply – either of working with anyone in a totally neutral way for the benefit of the populations or, on the contrary, of making choices to intervene if necessary, perhaps even against the will of the governments concerned, will remain unresolved, and I fear that it will be even stronger in a world where nationalism and the desire for sovereignty are becoming more and more pronounced.

The wall separating Israel from the West Bank. Abir Sultan, Keystone

Alain Boinet. I myself have often crossed the borders of countries at war without authorisation or a visa in order to help populations in danger in the name of the duty to assist people in danger, without questioning these borders. How do you see this problem?

Bruno Tertrais. I understand the logic, but what I mean by that is that there is a difference between the no-borders and the borderless. The no-borders are anarchist-type movements that want to challenge the international order, i.e. they believe that borders should disappear. Other types of movements, on a different political spectrum, such as the jihadists, also want to erase borders, because when you want to create a caliphate, you want to erase national borders. When you bulldoze the traces of the Sykes-Picot line on the Syrian-Iraqi border, it’s a form of extreme borderlessness, hence my formula “no border” is not “without borders”. Your approach is very different from that of the no-borders. It also serves as a reminder that the majority of the world’s land borders are barely demarcated and generally undemarcated. The world is not in the process of enclosure and walls and fences are now only a minority of land routes.

Humanitarian challenges. To conclude, what would you like to add?

Bruno Tertrais. Perhaps a word that goes beyond your immediate concerns but which I think is important to stress is that land borders will, in my opinion, be relatively stable in the future as a whole, whereas maritime borders are very poorly delimited and are still the subject of many disputes, And of course, this is not a humanitarian issue, but when one is interested in the world order and in particular in borders, it is an issue that should be followed with great attention because tomorrow’s territorial conflicts will be just as much at sea, if not more so, than on land.

For more information, see Bruno Tertrais’ books in French:

Who is Bruno Tertrais ?

Bruno Tertrais is Deputy Director of the Foundation for Strategic Research (FSR) since 2017.

His fields of expertise are geopolitics and international relations, defence and military affairs, nuclear issues, US policy and transatlantic relations, security in the Middle East and Asia.

He was a Senior Research Fellow at the FSR (2001-2016), a Chargé de mission to the Director of Strategic Affairs at the Ministry of Defence (1993-2001), and Director of the Civil Affairs Committee at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (1990-1993).

In 1995-1996, he was a visiting scholar at the RAND Corporation. In 2007-2008, he was a member of the Commission on the White Paper on Defence and National Security and a member of the Commission on the White Paper on Foreign and European Policy. In 2012-2013, he was a member of the new White Paper Commission on Defence and National Security.

Bruno Tertrais is a member of the Group of Eminent Persons of the Preparatory Commission for the CTBTO; the Group of Eminent Persons for the Substantive Advancement of Nuclear Disarmament; the Advisory Board of the Global US Special Operations Forces Foundation; the Executive Committee of the Maritime Strategy Center at the University of Haifa; the International Institute for Strategic Studies; the Editorial Board of The Washington Quarterly and Journal of Security and Strategic Analyses; the Scientific Council of the journal Champs de Mars; the Scientific Council of the Chair of International Issues at the University of Paris-I Panthéon-Sorbonne; the Scientific Council of the Chair of Economics and Geopolitics at the Paris School of Business; the Council of the Jean Monnet Foundation for Europe; the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institut Montaigne and a scientific advisor to the High Commissioner for Planning. He writes a bi-monthly column in the weekly L’Express entitled “Le regard du stratège“.

In 2010, he was awarded the Vauban Prize for the whole of his work. In 2013, he received the “Grand Prix de l’impertinence et des bonnes nouvelles” for an essay entitled Un monde de catastrophes? Myths and realities of progress. In 2014, he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour. In 2016, he received, with Jean Guisnel, the Brienne Prize for the geopolitical book of the year for the book “Le Président et la Bombe“. In 2017, he received, with Delphine Papin, the Georges Erhard Prize, awarded by the Geography society for the book L’Atlas des frontières. His latest book in French is : Le Choc démographique. La grande peur de l’Occident (Editions Odile Jacob, 2020).