Frontiers vs. Borders Research Paper

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The terms frontier and border can sometimes be synonymous, but historians make distinctions between them. Frontiers are areas of interpenetration between societies, while borders are established by states to separate their subjects and territories from other political jurisdictions.

Although people often use the terms frontier, boundary, and border interchangeably, and in some forms of usage the terms can be regarded as synonyms, historians have emphasized important distinctions between frontiers and boundaries. Frontiers are, above all, zones of interaction. They can arise as a result of cross-cultural encounters, population movements, and the absence of state authority or an effective monopoly of violence. The historian Leonard Thompson has defined a frontier thusly: “In our usage, a frontier is an area of interpenetration between societies. It contains three elements: a territorial element, a zone or territory as distinct from a boundary line; a human element, comprising peoples of initially separate and distinct societies; and a process element by which relations among such peoples commence, develop, and eventually crystallize. A frontier opens with the first contact between members of these two societies. It closes when a single authority has established political and economic dominance . . . “ (Lamar and Thompson 1981, 87).

In contrast, boundaries are established by states to separate their subjects and territories from other political jurisdictions. The political geographer Ladis Kristof defines a boundary as the “outer line of effective control exercised by the central government” (Kristof 1959, 270). Borders are legal and political infrastructures created by states to maintain boundaries and regulate movement. Frontiers and boundaries have been important factors in global history, but a truly global survey of their impact has not yet been written.


Although the term frontier can be traced as far back as medieval Spain, it has most frequently and famously been applied to North American history. For more than a century historians in the United States have debated the “role of the frontier” in U.S. history. In 1893 the U.S. historian Frederick Jackson Turner spoke of “the” frontier as a “meeting point between savagery and civilization,” the “edge of free land,” and “the line of most rapid and effective Americanization.” He argued that in frontiers one could witness in rapid succession various forms of social evolution such as hunting, trading, ranching, farming, and finally manufacturing. Such characteristics of the United States as democracy, individualism, and idealism could, in his opinion, be attributed to the frontier experience. Many of Turner’s conclusions have been disputed, disregarded and replaced by more nuanced models of interaction between settlers and indigenous populations in North America, but the frontier still persists in popular imagination and popular culture. Turner himself saw comparative possibilities for analyzing frontier influences beyond North America: “For a moment at the frontier the bonds of custom are broken and unrestraint is triumphant…each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past.” His concept of the frontier has been applied with varying degrees of success to such diverse areas as Australia, South Africa, Russia, medieval Europe, and the Roman Empire.

In 1952, Walter Prescott Webb, a Texas historian who had previously studied the Great Plains, published a study that attempted to apply the frontier model on a global scale. The discovery of West Indies by Columbus and the ensuing exploration of the Americas, in his opinion, opened up a “Great Frontier” for European expansion. The West, he argued, enjoyed unparalleled access to land and resources, creating an economic boom that lasted for centuries. The closing of the Great Frontier, however, presented a new challenge to the West. With land for settlement no longer available and resources no longer easily accessible, Western society, together with its capitalism, democracy, and individualism, faced the possibility of uncertainty.

The world historian William H. McNeill revisited the notion of the Great Frontier in 1983. He focused on European settler societies in certain areas of the world and evaluated the ways in which frontier conditions transformed the societies and economies created as a result of the migration of Europeans across oceans and across the Eurasian steppe (the vast, usually level and treeless tracts in southeastern Europe or Asia) after 1500. The Great Frontier was characterized by a dichotomy between freedom and compulsion. In some cases the frontier promoted freedom and equality (the Cossacks, European colonists in North America), whereas in others the availability of land and relative shortage of labor led to enslavement or enserfment of workers. McNeill’s work helped to frame frontiers in such a way that no single outcome could be considered characteristic of frontier processes.

Most recently the anthropologist Igor Kopytoff has applied the frontier concept to broad expanses of African history. In various places and periods networks of local frontiers formed a great process in African history. As a result of famines, conflicts, ecological pressures, and entrepreneurial pursuits, individuals and groups took up residence in “no-man’s lands” beyond the jurisdiction of established communities. After they were successfully established, they formed a nucleus of a new group, which could serve as a magnet for the disaffected groups and individuals from neighboring societies. Given the right conditions (distance, ecological barriers, inability of existing societies to extend control), new polities (political organizations) emerged at the margins of existing polities. Some of these new polities eventually became powerful enough to form new polities and absorb their older neighbors. Kopytoff’s model effectively distanced frontiers from predetermined outcomes: “The frontier is permissive rather than determinant, it does not create a type of society, but provides an institutional vacuum for the unfolding of social processes” (Kopytoff 1987, 14). Thus, each frontier provides the possibility of generating multiple outcomes.

Comparative frontier studies have gradually abandoned the Eurocentric models promoted by Turner and his students. Historians in the United States still debate Turner’s legacy, with some even rejecting the term frontier because of its cultural baggage, but many sophisticated studies of cross-cultural interaction, ecological transformation, and settlement owe an intellectual debt to Turner.

Applied on a global scale, the frontier concept provides a lens for examining how the forces of environment, cross-cultural interaction, and adaptation can create new communities and societies. Furthermore, frontiers demonstrate how important processes of change can originate at the margins of existing societies and how peripheries can become new centers.

The Question of Ancient Borders

Although people often consider borders to be characteristically modern, recent research by the Italian historian Mario Liverani has documented their existence in international relations of the ancient Near East. During the late Bronze Age (c. 1550–1200 bce) interstate relations developed between emerging states in Anatolia (in modern Turkey), Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the lands adjacent to or between those states. Many of the rulers of such ancient states claimed to be universal rulers, but they nonetheless delineated fixed borders of effective control. In the ideology of kingship, the ruler should continuously expand his territory to the ends of the known world. Because the process of expansion would never be complete, rulers often erected commemorative monuments at the extremities of the territories they had conquered or traversed. Liverani writes: “if we view the border as an elastic perimeter that follows the outward movements of the king, the stela [a stone slab or pillar used for commemorative purposes], which has his name and image inscribed upon it, acts as a substitute for his presence” (2001, 34).

Borders in the ancient Near East were fixed by treaties between two equal parties or between the victor and the vanquished. Existing treaties mention features of the landscape, names of cities, and lists of settlements subject to each ruler. A major question was the distribution of revenues, or who would pay tribute to whom. Treaties also defined penalties for raiding, promoted return of runaways, and included terms of trade. Safe conducts—documents guaranteeing the right to travel across a ruler’s territory without bureaucratic hindrance from minor officials—originated in Near Eastern diplomacy to facilitate the movement of representatives of a ruler across foreign territories.

We should not view these ancient boundaries of control, however, as the exact equivalent of modern territorial borders. Rulers were mainly interested in controlling strategic points. Liverani states: “The territory controlled by the state resembles an ‘oasis’ . . . there is no need for a boundary line, but rather for ‘gateways’ channels of controlled communication with other states (or other inhabited areas) beyond the depopulated belt” (Liverani 2001, 52). Remote border posts acted as a filter to let desirable persons and things pass on into heart of the state and to keep out undesirables.

Imperial Boundary Maintenance in Eurasia

In global history the Eurasian steppe has been the scene of various attempts by sedentary societies to create artificial barriers to impede the movement of more mobile societies. These barriers required large investments of resources, and in some ways they foreshadowed the functional role of modern borders in managing and controlling movement. Various states have used physical barriers in attempts to control the mobility of both their subjects and foreign adversaries. As late as the seventeenth century, Russia used the Belgorod Line, an earthen and wooden barrier created to prevent nomadic attacks, to also limit the outward movement of its subject serfs to freedom in areas of the steppe beyond state control.

In the historiography (the writing of history) of western Eurasia, the remnants of Roman military fortifications have long attracted the attention of scholars. European historians were intrigued by the possible function of structures such as Hadrian’s Wall, which stretches virtually from sea to sea across Great Britain and once featured three layers of barriers: ditches, walls and watchtowers, and military roads, forts, and mobile patrols. One Roman source explains that the purpose of the wall was “to separate the Romans and barbarians” (Jones 1996, 47). The sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius could even imagine the wall as a dividing line, beyond which human habitation was literally impossible due to pestilential air. Although boundary maintenance structures have been imagined as zones of extreme exclusion, the evidence points to a much more complex picture.

Because Roman frontier forts and garrisons ringed the diverse edges of the Mediterranean world, historians have tried to make sense of the role of border fortifications in diverse terrains. The military historian Edward Luttwak’s The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, published in 1976, argued that a Roman unified system of defense in depth was developed by the Flavian emperors (second century CE) and subsequent emperors and was applied strategically to the empire’s vast frontiers. Historians have debated whether these barriers indicate an aggressive or defensive posture, whether strategic thinking on an empire-wide level can in fact be documented, whether far-flung infrastructures were ad hoc (concerned with a particular end or purpose) local measures or were centrally planned, whether Roman ideology could ever admit a limit to expansion, and whether Greek traditions of building military barrier walls influenced Roman actions. Discussions have centered even on the meaning of the word limes, which some historians have used to describe the frontier defense “system,” but which others think referred only to military road networks. Because the “barbarian” invasions played a role in the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, discussions of frontier fortifications have implications for broader questions of imperial decline/transformation. Textual evidence is limited, but hundreds of miles of fortifications and thousands of archaeological sites in Africa, Asia, and Europe have yielded new information. At the very least the Romans seem to have been operating strategically in similar ways in different regions, in some cases setting the agenda, in other cases reacting to circumstances. Although barriers clearly were designed to deal with medium-intensity threats and were supported by intricate systems of garrisons and communication networks, the contemporary sources do not explicitly define the parameters of grand strategy.

Rather than separate Romans from “barbarians,” the boundary fortifications often facilitated contact between Romans and their neighbors. The archaeologist Peter Wells has documented the impact of Roman expansion along the Rhine: “The Roman expansion into temperate Europe can be productively viewed as a process that involved interaction between peoples, negotiation with political leaders, and sometimes combat” (Wells 1999, 95).

Archaeology, inscriptions, and texts demonstrate that the lines between Romans and their neighbors were more blurred than previously thought. Many non-Romans were living in Roman territories and employed by the Roman army. Even groups living far beyond the border in an expansive frontier zone were influenced by Roman culture and participated in trade networks. Objects traded hundreds of miles from the farthest Roman forts suggest connections rather than separation.

Historians examining more than two millennia of interaction between China and Inner Asia have faced similar problems of interpretation. Here, too, walls provide visual evidence of ancient divisions, but these walls are subject to varying interpretations. In his classic study Inner Asian Frontiers the Asian studies expert Owen Lattimore spoke of the Great Wall of China as a dividing line ordained by the environment. It roughly approximated an ecological fault line between lands to the south, which were conducive to agriculture, and to the north, which were the domain of pastoral nomadism. For him the Great Wall was a kind of “optimum limit of growth” for the Chinese Empire, but he emphasized that a linear boundary could not be established (Lattimore 1951, 238, 240). He focused attention on the struggle for control of marginal lands and a series of transitional zones between “full Chinese order” and “full steppe order” (Lattimore 1951, 498).

The historian Andrew Waldron has convincingly argued that “there was no single Great Wall in the Chinese past” (Waldron 1988, 69) and that pre-nineteenth-century Chinese observers rarely spoke of a single structure. European notions of a “Great Wall of China” evolved during centuries, influencing modern Chinese perceptions and culminating in the myth (developed during the late nineteenth century) that the “Great Wall” is the only human-made object visible from outer space. Waldron traces how simple earthen fortifications (first mentioned in 656 BCE) emerged, were unified in a system of walls under the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE), and finally, many centuries later, became identified as an ancient structure ranging for more than 9,000 kilometers. These ancient walls were variously built, abandoned, repaired, and abandoned once again. Furthermore, wall building was only one of many strategies for dealing with the nomads. Furthermore, we can draw no direct correlation between wall building and the weakness of the Chinese state. Finally, the massive brick and stone walls that are commonly visited by tourists near Beijing were built relatively late, during a new period of wall building by the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).

Recent scholars have likewise looked at interactions across the Chinese walls. The walls themselves were never able to enforce a complete dichotomy between the Middle Kingdom (China) and the “outer darkness” beyond its borders. Several studies have demonstrated how nomadic confederacies thrived because of interaction with China. Anthropologist Thomas Barfield has argued that the success of nomadic confederacies depended upon a ruler’s abilities to secure resources from China. To do this, he might organize raids or act as an intermediary between China and the steppe. Often nomadic confederacies avoided conquering Chinese territory and preferred to use their power to extract resources, subsidies, or access to trade. The historian Sechin Jagchid has argued even that trade was the “essential element that determined whether peace or war existed along China’s northern frontier” and has traced key institutions such as frontier markets, tribute, bestowals (acts of gift giving), and exchanges of brides between Chinese and nomadic rulers (Jagchid and Symons 1989, 1).

The resources necessary for boundary maintenance were enormous, and infrastructures were expensive to maintain. Policies such as diplomacy or trade proved to be cheaper and, in some cases, more effective. Even walls could not stop cross-cultural interaction because populations that appeared to be distinct when viewed from the perspective of the center were in fact often blurred when viewed at the margins.

Borders as a Global Framework

Boundaries and border infrastructures have not necessarily been pervasive in global history. In fact we do not know even how common boundaries were in certain parts of the world before the modern period. Many societies recognized some form of boundaries and created fortifications, but these were not necessarily linear or territorial borders in the modern sense.

The rise of Islam provides an interesting example of boundary conceptualization. Islamic political theory does not seem to have recognized the notion of political boundaries. According to Ralph Brauer, boundaries were noncanonical in Islamic law. Islamic jurists conceptualized the world as divided into two irreconcilable realms: the Dar al Islam (land of Islam) and the Dar al Harb (land of war). In theory Islam was expected to be ever expanding until the Islamic community was coterminous (having the same or coincident boundaries) with the whole world. Sanction for jihad (holy war) against non-Islamic states makes the boundaries of Islam permanently in a state of flux. Although Islamic statecraft recognizes temporary peace agreements with non-Muslims and brief, strategic concessions, in Islamic statecraft there was apparently no such thing as a permanent boundary. This unique approach might be explained by the fact that linear boundaries were not practical in the desert nomadic culture that influenced early Islam. The fourteenth-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, for example, portrays Islamic states as surrounded by border zones rather than lines. Early Ottoman expansion seemed to confirm the notion that Islamic states should only expand their borders and dictate terms of surrender to their opponents, but eventually expansion stalled and pragmatism set in. After the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699) Ottoman diplomats recognized mutually delineated political borders between Islamic and non-Islamic states, creating a precedent for participation of Muslim countries in the modern international system.

Modern International System of Boundaries

Although various aspects of modern borders have ancient antecedents, the modern international system of territorially conceived sovereign states is usually traced to the Peace of Westphalia, which was concluded in October 1648. The text of the treaty did not specifically deal with the question of borders, but it did establish a principle of territorial inviolability. The treaty recognized its signatories as equal, regardless of size, religious confession, or previous imperial affiliation. It also confirmed each ruler’s sovereignty over his or her subjects. By diminishing the power of Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire, it set the stage for an international system of states that regulate their affairs through common and mutually acknowledged patterns of diplomacy and international cooperation. This system, with mutually recognized borders and state sovereignty within them, was gradually expanded and applied to various parts of the world.

As the historian Peter Sahlins demonstrated, the territorialization of the state in Europe was a long and tortuous process. Sahlins examined the history of the border between Spain and France in one area of the Pyrenees Mountains between 1659 and 1868. Even after the two states agreed in principle on partitioning the Cerdanya Valley between them, ecclesiastical, fiscal, seignorial (manorial), and local jurisdictions did not necessarily coincide with state borders. The creation of the border as an institution was often tied to local interests and grievances, which local people used to seek responses and resources from the national capitals. Although notions of “territorial violations” already had emerged during the late eighteenth century, the border was only vaguely demarcated and rarely patrolled. France first attempted to seal off its border in 1822 to prevent an epidemic, and only by 1868 was a well-marked linear boundary established. Sahlins has tried to dispel the notion that borders were imposed from above on unwilling populations.

Not enough detailed studies are available for us to determine whether the Spanish-French example was typical even for Europe. Nonetheless, the rough contours of the emergence of international borders are evident. During the early modern period (sixteenth to eighteenth century) maps became essential to the delineation of political boundaries, and rulers began to define the limits of their territories with more and more precision. Correspondingly, borders began to be delineated with increasing precision. Usually established by bilateral treaties, borders were demarcated in the landscape (most often by marks on rocks, trees, or special boundary markers) by commissioners representing each state in the presence of local witnesses. The general tendency of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was to try to create rational and orderly boundaries (straight lines appeared for the first time on maps) that coincided with existing jurisdictions or natural landmarks such as rivers. Early efforts at migration control, which were not always necessarily enforced at the borders, aimed to limit the entry or exit of certain groups categorized as undesirable: beggars, carriers of communicable diseases, and politically suspect individuals such as spies, traitors, and revolutionaries.

During the second half of the nineteenth century border infrastructures in Europe became more elaborate. Passports, which originated as diplomatic safe conducts, were not originally indicative of citizenship and were not universally required for international travel until World War I. As states increased their grasp over their territories, more officials were posted along border roads and in border towns. Often border guards and customs agents carried out fiscal and political surveillance of travelers, but they possessed neither the ability nor inclination to inspect every border crosser or to document every entry or exit (exceptions existed, such as Russia, which zealously monitored movement across its borders). During the last decades of the nineteenth century some European countries moved toward controlled entry policies: documenting the entry and exit of each traveler, whether citizen or foreign national. State efforts to regulate movement were largely confined, however, to ports, trains, and main roads. During the last decades of the nineteenth century some countries passed laws distinguishing foreigners from native citizens in order to protect local labor markets from foreign competition.

During the early twentieth century borders became pervasive on a global scale. Virtually the whole globe was parceled into sovereign jurisdictions, whether inhabited or not. Each state became territorially defined, and each government was authorized under international law to determine whom to admit. Passports became required for movement across international borders. Twentieth-century borders were strongly shaped by the activities of the European colonial powers. For example, in their race to claim huge chunks of Africa after the Congress of Berlin during the period 1884–1885, the European colonial powers ignored existing cultural divisions, drew straight lines across formidable features of the landscape, and even laid claim to territories that had never been seen by Europeans. Antarctica is now the only continent that does not have functioning international borders. By international agreement, most states agreed to renounce claims of territorial sovereignty in Antarctica.

During the 1930s states enacted the first attempts to achieve total control over their borders. Extreme boundary maintenance policies (most notably in Nazi Germany, the USSR, other socialist states, and areas along politically sensitive tracts in other parts of the world) were often instituted for ideological reasons. State efforts to limit unauthorized movement across boundaries were facilitated by two advances in technologies for impeding movement: barbed wire (developed on the U.S. plains to control cattle during the late nineteenth century) and antipersonnel land mines (developed during the U.S. Civil War).

The Soviet border infrastructure, dubbed the “Iron Curtain” during the Cold War, was the earliest and most extensive of these structures. Although the Bolsheviks espoused internationalism, they also embraced borders. Early Soviet boundary maintenance began during the Russian Civil War (1917–1920) when secret police units were given jurisdiction over the internal lines of demarcation between Soviet areas and the various “counterrevolutionary” governments within the boundaries of the old Russian Empire. Fears of encirclement by aggressive capitalist enemies eager to undermine the Soviet state, coupled with economic pressures to stem the flight of specialists and millions of disaffected citizens, led Soviet leaders to solidify border patrols. By around 1930 more than 50,000 kilometers of Soviet borders were being guarded by forty thousand border guards who were assigned to ten border patrol districts. Borders tended to be more heavily patrolled in the west and in densely populated areas in other parts of Eurasia. In those areas patrol density averaged 2.5 men per kilometer of border, but fewer resources were devoted to areas in Asia or the far north that were remote and difficult to cross because of extreme terrains. An expensive and expansive infrastructure utilized patrols by land, air, and sea, networks of local informants, watchtowers, land mines, tens of thousands of miles of tracking strips (areas that were cleared of inhabitants and vegetation and specially maintained to make surveillance possible and footprints visible), thousands of miles of barbed-wire fences and, eventually, electronic signalization systems. Militarily sensitive areas might also be mined to prevent “border violations.” Access to border zones was rigidly controlled, and Soviet citizens could enter these areas only with official permission. As a result of these measures, unauthorized entry and exit became virtually impossible between the 1950s and 1991. These measures were replicated in Soviet satellite states, most notably in Germany’s Berlin Wall (1961–1989).

Although many such extreme borders disappeared with the end of the Cold War, many remained in place after 2000. Such borders continued to be maintained between India and Pakistan, between the two Koreas, in Israel, parts of the former USSR, China, and so forth. Economic migration has spurred the construction of new border infrastructures in certain areas. Administrative barriers to movement (primarily entry visas and residence restrictions) still limit and regulate movement from developing (or “southern,” Third World) countries to industrialized countries. Although the European Union abolished border controls among its member states in 1999, it strengthened its external borders in southern and eastern Europe. In particular, a highly sophisticated border infrastructure (a twenty-first-century Berlin Wall) was created to protect Spanish enclaves in Morocco from mass migration. The U.S.-Mexico border, which was only sporadically patrolled for much of the twentieth century, has become an increasingly complex border infrastructure. During the late 1990s border sectors near major metropolises such as San Diego, California, and El Paso, Texas, were equipped with walls, infrared scopes, underground sensors, and increased mobile and air patrols. By 2004, 9,600 kilometers of U.S. land borders were patrolled by roughly eight thousand officers, a figure that rivals the density of Soviet border patrol deployments during the 1930s. Thus, globalization did not bring about a “world without borders” during the waning years of the twentieth century.


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