Three Stories in the Key Of: Borders

Borders. Who gets to define them, control them, and cross them is a critical political issue in dozens of countries across the globe these days. Here are three recent stories about borders that caught our attention.


Backlash in South America: As Venezuelans continue to flee their country’s government-driven humanitarian crisis, the exodus is beginning to generate pushback in neighboring countries. Earlier this month, Brazil sent the army to quell a local riot against Venezuelan migrants at the border. Now Peru has tightened restrictions, requiring Venezuelans to hold a passport, rather than an easily-forged national ID card, to enter the country. Passports are expensive and rarely held by Venezuela’s most vulnerable people, meaning that the measure in effect shuts out thousands of impoverished migrants. The UN has criticized the move, which the Peruvians argue is needed to preserve order and security – but it may just end up spurring more clandestine border-crossings. Colombian, Peruvian, and Ecuadorean officials are currently meeting to discuss. South America has typically been less affected by the kinds of border issues that have plagued Central American countries further north, but issues of security, sovereignty, and social backlash are coming to a head fast as Venezuela’s monstrous deterioration continues to take a toll on its neighbors.

Border dwellers who like things loose: Often it’s the people who live just inside the frontiers who clamor loudest for their governments to tighten the borders against migrant flows. Earlier this year, for example, the Bavarians who live along Germany’s southeastern border nearly brought down the national government by demanding that Berlin impose more checkpoints to stem the flow of Middle Eastern and North African asylum seekers. And of course, Italy, which makes up a large swathe of the EU’s southern border, is already bucking Brussels by turning away boatloads of migrants.

But in North Africa, the situation is different. There, people who live right along (often arbitrarily-imposed) borders, far from major population centers and economic hubs, are typically marginalized populations who depend on smuggling for survival. So when central governments tighten borders to stop militants, weapons, and migrants – but fail to address the broader economic problems that cause black markets in human trafficking and contraband to flourish – they may end up exacerbating the problems of poverty and economic exclusion that breed militancy and social instability.

Fluid borders: Lastly, while some border disputes are about who’s crossing over them, others are about what’s flowing under them. A recent report on water resources along national borders by Quartz finds that two-thirds of the world’s frontier rivers aren’t governed by cross-border agreements, placing hundreds of millions of people at risk in the event that governments clash over those resources. There are currently open or potential water disputes between dozens of countries including the US and Mexico; India and Pakistan; Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Jordan; and between Egypt and almost all of its southern neighbors along the Nile. As climate change and population growth place growing strains on water resources worldwide, the question of who gets access to rivers and underground aquifers is an increasingly urgent one.

The Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace launched in 2018 with the commitment of signatories to stand up to cyber threats like election interference, attacks on critical infrastructure, and supply chain vulnerabilities. Last week, on the first anniversary of the call, the number of signatories has nearly tripled to more than 1,000 and now includes 74 nations; more than 350 international, civil society and public sector organizations; and more than 600 private sector entities. These commitments to the Paris Call from around the world demonstrate a widespread, global, multi-stakeholder consensus about acceptable behavior in cyberspace.

Read More at Microsoft On The Issues.

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In recent years, Republicans have come to dominate most of the state legislatures in the US. Ironically, it was during the Obama-era that the GOP made major headway in states that had long been considered safely blue. State legislatures are now redder than they've been in nearly a century, and in most parts of the country, one party holds all the levers of power (governorship and legislatures). For the first time since 1914, there's only one split legislature in the entire country: Minnesota. To be sure, some state races are bucking the trend: Kentucky and Louisiana, both deep-red states, recently elected Democratic governors. Here's a look at how Democratic and Republican control of state legislatures has evolved over the past four decades.

Forty years ago, Islamic extremists angry at the Saudi government's experiments with social liberalization laid siege to the Grand Mosque of Mecca, the holiest site in Islam.

To regain control, the House of Saud had to strike a deal with key conservative clerics whose blessing they needed in order to send troops into the mosque . The monarchy agreed to roll back all liberalization at home, and pledged to actively fund the spread of conservative wahhabi Islamic teachings around the globe.

To understand better how the repercussions of those choices are still with us today, we put some questions to Yaroslav Trofimov, chief foreign affairs correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and author of the magnificently written 2007 book The Siege of Mecca.

His answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

Why is it important to mark the 40th anniversary of the siege?

YT: We are at a historic moment once again in Saudi Arabia, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman openly talking about how he wants to rectify the errors of 1979 and bring the country into a more socially liberal system. And he has done a lot already, allowing women to drive and lifting many other restrictions, allowing pop concerts, cinemas, tourism — all those things that remained banned in Saudi Arabia because of the 1979 deal between the House of Saud and the clerics. We are obviously talking about social as opposed to political liberalization now, as the kingdom's political system remains as oppressive as ever.

How did the event change Saudi Arabia's society?

YT: The 1979 events gave the upper hand to religious conservatives for nearly four decades, freezing the social reforms and keeping the kingdom's population under control of the religious establishment and its Vice and Virtue Police. That had repercussions in every sector, most notably education, which created a new generation steeped in ultra-conservative Islamic values. It is only after the 2001 attacks [of 9/11] that this began to change, with the most dramatic erosion of the clerics' power happening since 2016.

How did the siege affect Riyadh's foreign policy?

YT: The new pact between the clerics and the House of Saud also meant that the Saudi oil money was to be used to spread its ultra-conservative version of Islam around the world, at the expense of more moderate and open interpretations. That changed the discourse in Islamic countries all over, and indirectly fostered the rise of extremism.

The siege came a few months after the Iranian revolution, how did that play into things?

YT: There was a lot of confusion at first, as the US blamed Iran for the Mecca events and Iran blamed the US. But, all in all, the siege taught the Saudi royal family that the best way to confront Iran's aspirations to lead the pan-Islamic revolution was to stoke Sunni sectarianism that dismissed Iranians as not really Muslim because of their Shiite faith.

That became a point of convergence between the supporters of Juhayman [al-Oteibi, leader of the siege], the Saudi clerics, and the Saudi government. And we see the repercussions of that rise of Sunni-Shiite sectarianism across the region today.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says he is trying to move Saudi Arabia back onto the pre-1979 course of social liberalization. Is that possible?

YT: Well, empirically it is happening. I refer you to the piece I just wrote from Saudi Arabia for the WSJ. Times are changing and the influence of social media and the internet in general on young Saudis is massive, opening up their minds. Also, hundreds of thousands of young Saudis have traveled to the US to study on King Abdullah scholarships in the past decade, bringing back fresh ideas.

So far the backlash to the changes in the kingdom has been very limited. The question is: is Prince Mohammed dragging a reluctant kingdom into modernity, or was the society changed and reachable all along? We'll see what happens in the coming years.

In many ways the Siege of Mecca is the story of unintended consequences: of leaders tolerating (and even supported) extremists who ended up turning on their masters. Is there a comparable situation today that worries you?

YT: Well, history is full of unintended consequences. Did Putin expect Ukraine to harden as a nation-state and decisively turn toward the West as a result of his [invasion of the country] in 2014? My guess is no: he expected it to crumble.

On the question of jihadists, I think countries have learned since 2001 and since the rise of Islamic State that extremist proxies are dangerous. How long will that lesson hold?

Time will tell.