Feature Blog

New dimensions, new maps: Shifting borders, boundaries, and sovereignty




“It is not down on any map. True places never are.”—Herman Melville, Moby Dick

A cursory review of the daily news reveals a world in which borders are in flux and control of territory is increasingly contested both within and between sovereign entities.

Crimea has been incorporated into Russia, and Ukraine is fighting to keep whole.

Iraq is devolving into a state in three parts, and the new “Islamic State” stretches—at least for now—across the borders of Syria and northern Iraq, while the Iraqi Kurdish regional government pushes forward with independent energy exports through Turkey and discussion of a referendum on independence.

Scotland’s unsuccessful referendum for separation from the United Kingdom undermined immediate prospects of independence for Edinburgh, but the closeness of the vote—55% no, 45% yes—will further devolve power from Westminster and change the relationship between Scotland and the UK.

The Spanish government has vowed to use the “full force of the law” to block November’s scheduled Catalonia independence referendum, but either the vote or early regional elections could intensify separatist sentiment not just in Catalonia, but also among Spain’s Basque population and plausibly elsewhere in Europe.

In Afghanistan, contested election results, insurgent momentum, and an abundance of not-quite-aligned interests of external actors have heightened the potential for persistent political unrest. Across the long-lamented Durand Line dividing the Pashtuns of Afghanistan from those in Pakistan, the Pakistani government and military are in the midst of a violent offensive to regain control of its North Waziristan province from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan militants.

In East Asia, the possibility for unification or conflict along the tense border on the Korean Peninsula looms over the region, as does intense concern over the near daily incursions of contested air defense zones and maritime borders and boundaries from the South China Sea to the Kuril Islands in northeast Asia.

From Erbil to Edinburgh, Kabul to Khartoum, and from Donetsk to Damascus to the Diaoyus, the dimensions of the international system—the Westphalian concept that nation-states have sovereignty over their territory—are being challenged in stark and destabilizing ways. Challenges within states and contested borders between states ensure that shifting borders and boundaries will play a critical role in driving competition, crisis, and potentially conflict in the 21st century. Emerging de jure and, more importantly, de facto dimensions of the international system have important implications for security, intelligence, and defense communities across the globe as well as for businesses seeking to effectively operate and expand in a complex and fluid world.

New states and struggling sovereigns

Changing borders and boundaries are not a new phenomenon. Most tend to think of maps as inviolate and certain, but the dimensions of the international system have changed dramatically over time and are frequently ill defined. (Question: How many sovereign states are there in the world? Answer: It depends on whom you ask. The United Nations has 193 members. The United States recognizes 194 countries. The International Olympic Committee, an organization with an interest in understanding how communities identify and divide themselves, has 204 members. FIFA, international football’s governing federation, has 209 members.)

The disintegration of pre-World War II empires, gradual redrawing or contestation of colonial boundaries, and formation and collapse of the post-World War II Soviet empire have ensured significant changes to the world’s political geography in the last seven decades. However, current and emerging challenges to modern maps are different. They are not primarily the result of a singular “big bang” in the supra-structure of international geopolitics, such as the end of World War II or the end of the Cold War.

The changing maps of the early 21st century are the result of the interplay of a series of disruptive forces that have gathered momentum in the last two decades. These include globalization; the prevalence of information technologies and the impact of social media to redefine the meaning of community; weapons and capability proliferation; demographic shifts; environmental degradation and resource competition; crime and corruption; and ethnic, sectarian, religious, and linguistic identity trumping state identity, among others (see sidebar facing page).

These forces are interacting to erode Westphalian concepts of sovereignty and statehood and increasingly separate historical and cultural “nations” from the political “states” to which they belong. The result is growing disparity—in wealth, values, primary self-identity, culture, opportunity, and access—between countries’ political and economic centers and their peripheries.

As The Guardian commented about the Scottish independence movement on September 5, it is not that the significant risks of independence are not known, but rather that they are not as troubling as enduring “two increasingly intolerable burdens”: a growing disconnect in values between “left-leaning Scots” and the British government and an inability to access and affect policy that reflects their differing values. Add in generational shifts in attitudes and the potential for exploitation of North Sea natural resources and it is no surprise the margin was so close.

Connections to external actors seeking to leverage struggling sovereigns for geopolitical gain frequently amplify and complicate these border-shattering dynamics. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continued destabilization of Ukraine have relied on Russian material support and the creation and furtherance of a narrative that stressed nationalist and historical links among Russia, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine in an effort to destabilize Ukraine, challenge the European Union and NATO, and reassert Russian influence in Eastern Europe.

The effects of environmental strain and degradation—damaged crops, eroding coastal areas—are increasingly posing uncomfortable questions of sovereign governments seeking to assess and balance the growing possibility and potential burden of climate change-induced mass migrations with humanitarian imperatives. In June 2014, the Immigration and Protection Tribunal of New Zealand granted asylum to a family from the Pacific island of Tuvalu to immigrate to New Zealand due to the threat of rising sea level to their home island. The tribunal’s decision was narrowly interpreted, according to the Washington Post, and is not an endorsement of climate change as a compelling justification on par with political persecution for asylum seekers to come to New Zealand. However, it highlights the difficult decisions and sovereign challenges that many governments throughout the world will face as the combined effect of a global population of over seven billion people and the erosion and disappearance of island or coastal land masses drives migration across and within borders.

Today’s challenges to the Westphalian system are also distinguished by their seeming ubiquity. Challenges to government control and political demarcations are no longer restricted to “failed” or “failing” states. They are being felt, and in some places strongly—Ukraine, for example, as well as in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet, in China—by Western and modern Asian states thought to be stable and in possession of strong state institutions and identities.

For example, the United States’ struggle to reconcile two competing views—red state versus blue state—of what the republic is, what it represents, and how it should behave has led to a hamstrung and divided polity. American institutions are likely resilient enough to avoid collapse, secession, or internal conflict, but the current political stagnation has a deleterious effect on national discourse and federal government effectiveness on critical issues, including immigration and the management of a porous border with Mexico. Political divisiveness has also contributed to uncertainty about military force structure and capabilities to project US power and pursue US security interests, all primary functions of an effective sovereign.

Ceding influence

Attempts to devolve control or, at the very least, effective influence from central sovereigns to more emergent “true places” governed by sub-state—and in some cases, non-state—actors are generating a range of behaviors and shared sovereignty arrangements and calculations on the part of central governments and those that challenge them

Few more striking or emblematic examples of these increasingly prevalent behaviors exist than Lebanon. In 2006, the Lebanese government remained neutral in a 30-day war fought almost entirely within its territory—a war that killed thousands of Lebanese citizens and displaced hundreds of thousands more. The decision was an acknowledgement of the accommodation the Lebanese government had reached with non-state actor and Iranian- and Syrian-linked Hezbollah.

In order for Lebanon to ensure continuation as a viable place on the map—a viability that is currently threatened by an ongoing political crisis fueled by a highly sectarian political system and spillover of sectarian tensions and violence from the conflict in Syria—its government ceded control of a portion of its territory in southern Lebanon to a non-state actor with its own robust military capability and political and societal traction.

Other more formal acknowledgements of the increasingly delicate balance being struck between central sovereign authority and social and political groups on the periphery of the state are being explored throughout the world. In India, decentralizing pressures have led to the establishment of four new states since 2000, including the formation of India’s 29th state, Telangana—carved out of territory in Andhra Pradesh—in June 2014. The new Telangana state raises several immediate governance questions for both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, which will share the state capital of Hyderabad for the next decade. It also raises longer-term questions about the next states that could be created and what additional segmentation of the Indian polity means for the world’s largest democracy.

Autonomy for the Kurdish regional government in Iraq has tested the ability of the Shi’a-led government of Iraq to exercise key instruments of sovereignty, such as exports of strategic resources and control of populations and territory in northern Iraq, especially as Iraqi security forces have retreated in the face of the Islamic State summer offensive. Kurdish autonomy has held implications for Iraq since it was first negotiated in 1970, but the growing assertiveness of the Kurdish government in operating increasingly independently of Baghdad could change the nature of the relationship between Iraqi Kurdistan and the Iraqi government once the current political and security crisis abates. Actions such as the movement of Kurdish forces into Kirkuk and occupation of oil-rich area west of its regional border after the withdrawal of Iraqi security forces are likely to shape a new starting point for post-conflict autonomy negotiations.

Iraqi Kurdistan autonomy also has implications for the Kurds’ neighbors, especially Turkey, which is in the midst of a significant demographic transition that is changing the nature and depth of Turkish government engagement of Kurdish groups both in Turkey and across the region (see sidebar below).

Not all accommodations and shared sovereignty environments are entered into willingly by governments, of course. Indeed, many are resisted quite intensely, though not always effectively. The proliferation of military and dual-use items has allowed more actors to affect strategic and operational environments and for more robust military challenges to sovereign forces. For example, according to the BBC, since 2006 more than 77,000 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico, as the government seeks to exert or regain control over significant portions of the country from drug cartels, which are competing violently with one another for control over parts of Mexico’s sovereign territory and the citizens and resources residing there.

Another severe and urgent example of contested sovereignty is seen in the range of armed conflicts taking place across the Middle East and North Africa—especially in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Each of these conflicts constitutes a perfect storm of several of the most intense forces driving internal challenges to boundaries and sovereignty: deep and historic sectarian tensions, religious extremism, weak institutions and poor governmental leadership, the influx of arms to both state and non-state actors, and the influence and interventions of outside actors seeking to extract geopolitical gain.

These conflicts have important and immediate implications for the future political geography, geopolitical competitions, and ultimately security and stability of the entire region. Most notably, they present existential challenges to Iraq, Syria, and Libya, all countries that could devolve into political entities with different contours as a result of the fighting and expose political vulnerabilities and fragilities of many other states across the Middle East. Regional armed conflicts also demonstrate that borders cease to be an effective constraint of crises once they start, especially in an environment in which external actors are supporting elements challenging state sovereignty and coherence.

These examples are stark but also reflective of the broader challenges that governments throughout the world are facing to their sovereignty, societal stability, and established borders. The new—if unofficial—dimensions of the international system will soon demand new maps that acknowledge that the boundaries and borders to which we have grown accustomed may no longer reflect the location of the world’s “true places.”

Contested boundaries

Erosion of Westphalian concepts of sovereignty resulting from competition within states is not the only way in which borders and boundaries are affecting our current geopolitical environment. Competition between states seeking to exercise exclusive control over contested territory is also shaping the future dimensions of the international system and creating anxious environments that lend themselves to miscalculation and sudden, accidental escalation.

This issue is of acute concern in East Asia, where bilateral and multilateral disputes persist over the South China Sea, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Ieodo/Suyan, Takeshima/Dokdo, Sakhalin Island, and the Kuril Islands. All of these disputes have critical elements in common: they are primarily maritime in nature; they are the result of claims by multiple states holding frequently maximalist territorial positions; and the contested borders sit across key shipping lanes, fishing locations, or areas of presumed abundance of natural resources.

China’s rise as a regional power and its unfolding competition with the United States, in particular, but also Japan and other states in the Western Pacific, are motivating increasingly assertive challenges to the status quo in East Asia. The unilateral placement of the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig well within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone near the contested Paracel Islands in May 2014 was the most provocative of a series of moves designed to assert control over territory—basically the entire South China Sea—covered by China’s “nine-dash line” claim. Ongoing island reclamation activity in both the Paracel and Spratly island chains will provide China with landing strips and expanded harbors from which to further pursue historical claims to the nine-dash line territory (see photo below right). Such perceived provocations have also generated growing concern among other claimants, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as extra-regional actors in the United States and Japan, over both China’s maximalist objectives and unilateral approach to pursuing these objectives.

China, of course, is not the only actor in East Asia that is pursuing its territorial claims, nor are all territorial disputes in the region between China and its nervous neighbors. According to an IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly report from April 2014, Russia is in the process of enhancing its military presence on the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin Island—both claimed by Russia and Japan—while Japan’s normalization of its defense and security policy has explicitly focused on reinforcing and exercising capabilities designed for the defense of Tokyo’s claims in the East China Sea.

Two types of technological development are also intensifying border and boundary disputes in East Asia. New and social media-fueled hyper-nationalism in northeast Asia is driving harsh and escalating rhetoric, provocative actions, and, critically, zero-sum thinking about the full range of regional contested border and boundary issues. This thinking constrains political alternatives for moderating foreign policies; reduces domestic political incentives for engagement and compromise; and accelerates decision-making timelines.

In addition, new technologies that enhance precise demarcation of the maritime borders of most concern in East Asia can also contribute to geopolitical tensions by eliminating ambiguity over borders. Asian states have leveraged the utility of ambiguity in the past to avoid bilateral escalations. Enhanced clarity about boundaries can serve to incite rather than dampen tensions, especially when they intersect with newly enmeshed and new media-fueled nationalisms and resource competition. Overlapping territorial claims are likely to prevail in this environment, a dynamic that can contribute to miscalculation, crisis, and conflict.

Security and investment implications

Struggling sovereigns and contested boundaries will have direct consequences for national security and defense communities throughout the world as well as for corporate enterprises seeking to safely, responsibly, and effectively operate in complex and fluid geopolitical environments. Three implications seem particularly relevant to both national security/defense community organizations and private companies.

  1. Border and physical security

    Because borders and boundaries are increasingly challenged and porous and, as a result, frequently do not contain crises geographically—the Arab Spring, for example—nations are focusing more assets and resources on securing borders and ports of entry to the greatest degree possible. Similarly, companies operating in unstable or insecure areas are vulnerable to fast-moving physical security threats to assets, personnel, and corporate interests, especially those companies supporting critical infrastructure and natural resource development.

    The result is growing demand among both public and private sector organizations for a novel suite of command, control, communication, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities previously most commonly associated with defense requirements. Unmanned and autonomous systems, remote sensing, cybersecurity, sophisticated command, control, and data integration systems, and effective security training, among other capabilities, are in demand to help monitor borders and fence lines, mitigate risk, track threats, and collect vital operational intelligence.

  2. New dimensions, new maps

    The development of new or more robust analysis about, and monitoring of, both possible fault lines within states and communities of interest and the networks that connect these communities to other at-risk states or localities are critical in understanding and responding to environments in which challenges—violent or otherwise—to current control of territory or resources are increasingly likely.

    Network, influencer, and nodal analyses are especially useful for both public and private organizations seeking to identify pathways of crisis contagion. Effective application of these tools allows enterprises to develop a nuanced understanding of tribal, social, business, and influence networks within and across at-risk geographies. Assessing online influencers—given the important role that globalization and information technologies play in current border challenges—is also key to identifying and potentially influencing networks of interest.

    IHS leverages social media monitoring tools to perform analyses of social media activity during and in advance of sovereign crises. For example, our team retroactively examined over 3.5 million tweets—about 10% of the total potential data set—posted in the month before and during large anti-government protests across Turkey in late May and early June 2013. IHS assessed this data to develop an understanding of general sentiment, geo-locate especially intense pockets of sentiment, and assess the most influential social media centers of gravity during the protests, which communities cohered around them, and how they connected to other online influencers.

    Social media intelligence (SOCMINT), especially in conjunction with a more in-depth analysis of network links and fault lines, provides enterprises with valuable indicators and warnings of changes in the intensity, trajectory, pace, and geographic focus areas of unfolding challenges. These types of analyses can also allow national security and corporate entities to better influence or, as in the case of extremist, criminal, or weapons proliferation networks, disrupt operations and decision making in these networks to protect assets, infrastructure, and interests.

  3. Anticipating ‘sudden’ shifts

    Shifting borders and boundaries raise the possibility of fundamental and potentially sudden shifts in political, geopolitical, and security landscapes. Companies and national security and defense agency strategies, interests, and assets may be compromised, threatened by, or vulnerable to shifts in control of territory and resources, which can subsequently constrain strategic and operational alternatives and force these communities into uncomfortable or undesirable alternatives.

    For the private sector, contested, uncertain, or newly drawn borders or newly acquired or lost resources (human and physical) can not only affect the physical security of personnel and assets, but also have implications on tax and contract regimes, regulatory and administrative environments, payment terms, and other critical elements affecting operational efficiency and business viability. For example, the growing tendency toward absolute claims of sovereignty and eschewing of multilateral dispute resolution mechanisms in Southeast Asia, in particular, can complicate the ability of a range of commercial companies—transportation, shipping, energy, infrastructure—to finalize deals “without prejudice” in which sovereignty can be put aside.

    Predicting the exact timing, dimensions, and trajectories of these shifts is exceedingly difficult. Even when risks are identified, crafting effective responses is difficult. However, both private sector and national security organizations can benefit from incorporation of enhanced strategy and decision-making support tools and capabilities that can help organizations anticipate plausible security, political, geopolitical, and business risks associated with shifting and contested borders. These capabilities can also help organizations develop strategies and operational solutions for mitigating these risks when they arise.

    Advanced and alternative analytical techniques—such as scenario planning and tabletop gaming—can help offset uncertainty by openly incorporating it into planning and decision-making processes. These tools are designed to posit and explore alternative environments and challenge core assumptions, such as the sovereignty and efficacy of central governments, buttressing risk mitigation strategies. Full incorporation of effective alternative analysis techniques can help decision makers identify and monitor signposts that specific challenges and risks are more or less likely to come to pass and develop hedging strategies designed to respond to crises as they unfold.

    Originally developed and implemented most intensively by national security planners—notably Herman Kahn, who frequently employed the methodology to determine pathways to, and outcomes of, nuclear conflicts in the 1950s—scenario planning has been utilized extensively and increasingly by corporations, most famously by Shell to help navigate the challenges of uncertain oil markets in the 1970s. A December 2012 survey of 77 European multinational corporations performed by Rene Rohrbeck of Aarhus University and Jan Oliver Schwarz of Germany’s EBS Business School found that implementation of “strategic foresight” methods was becoming more widespread and that these methods were believed to add value through enhancing corporate capacity to perceive, interpret, and respond to change, precisely the types of capabilities required to anticipate significant shifts in control of territories and resources.

Globalization, the information revolution, and the Islamic State

The interaction of globalization and the information revolution is playing an important role in shaping sovereign challenges in the early 21st century in at least three ways.

First, globalization and the information technologies that support and enable it facilitate proliferation of advanced commercial, dual-use, and military technologies, providing more and better capability to a wider range of sub-state and non-state actors. Conflicts across the Middle East and North Africa have been fueled in part by the influx of new weapons through licit and illicit means as well as shadowy connections to external patrons

Second, the perception that globalization has created winners and losers is amplifying center-periphery tensions within states.

Third, and most important, the information technologies and media that facilitate globalization also allow for enduring cross-border and diaspora connections and the coherence, hardening, and promulgation of ideologies and narratives—be they ethnic nationalist, extremist, nihilist, or something else entirely—that build momentum, credibility, and justification for tests of status quo borders and boundaries

For example, the Islamic State has engaged in an active, advanced, and effective new and social media strategy that was an important element supporting its rapid and unexpected advance across northern Iraq over the summer of 2014. The Islamic State live streamed the execution of Iraqi soldiers in June 2014 as well as its advance through Iraq—which was abetted by the collapse of an Iraqi army fully aware of the fate that awaited those who resisted the Islamic State—demonstrating the futility of resistance to the Iraqi army as well as the glory of victory to potential recruits.

Tate Nurkin

Kurdish population growing faster than ethnic Turks

Turkey, like much of the rest of the Middle East, is in the midst of significant demographic shifts that are likely to have implications for the country’s societal, economic, and political future and highlight the significance of Kurdish cross-boundary links with Kurdish populations in Iraq, Syria, and Iran (which is itself confronted by historic drops in fertility rates).

According to Turkey’s official statistics organization, TurkStat, the country’s population growth rate reached an all-time low of 1.2% in 2012, while the fertility rate for all of Turkey (2.08) stayed below replacement levels (2.1). However, all 10 provinces with the highest fertility rates in 2012 were in eastern Turkey, where Kurdish populations are highest, while fertility rates in the rest of the country were significantly below replacement levels.

These trends suggest that by the middle of the 21st century, the Kurdish population in Turkey will grow in both an absolute sense and as a markedly larger proportion of the Turkish society, its workforce, and its pool of military recruits.

Such an important demographic shift is already having—and will continue to have—implications for Turkish policies toward both its Kurdish minority and the large and linked Kurdish populations across Turkey’s borders in Iraq, Syria, and Iran.

Tate Nurkin Managing Director, Consulting and Thought Leadership, IHS Aerospace, Defense, and Security 

Connect with Tate on LinkedIn

James Clad Senior Associate, IHS Aerospace, Defense, and Security

Richard Evans Director, IHS Aerospace, Defense, and Security Consulting