There is a curious concept abroad in the world: that the borders of countries are something that cannot be, should not be, and usually are not changed. Rubbish, as the English say.

A century ago, most of the countries we see on the map today simply did not exist. And most of those that did have had substantial changes. The US has added states well outside the original continental swath. Canada added Newfoundland in 1949. The United Kingdom lost a large piece of territory when Ireland became independent in 1921. France, Belgium, and Denmark have modified their borders with Germany, sometimes more than once, Italy gained a part of Austria. The borders and in most cases countries further east in Europe bear no relationship to the situation in 1900. There were massive changes after WW1 and WW2.

In Asia, perhaps the only borders not changed belong to Iran. The borders of the Levant were drawn rather arbitrarily after WW1.

Many of the lines in Africa are the same as 100 years ago, but most of those lines were only drawn in 1885. The (roughly) present borders of Libya was established in 1919 and 1926. The political situation is of course completely different - the only independent countries in 1900 were Liberia and Ethiopia. Borders in Latin American has been much more stable, but even there Panama was extracted from Colombia in 1903, the borders of Chile, Peru and Bolivia modified after a war in 1929, much of the border of Brazil was not agreed until 1903, and there was a major change in that in 1923. The borders of Ecuador were redefined in 1922 and 1942.

So who has been stable? Spain, Portugal, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Switzerland and a couple of tiny places like Luxembourg and Liechtenstein.

Skipping over the collapse of colonialism, the division of India and then division of Pakistan, Indonesian conquest of East Timor and Irian Jaya, and loss of the former, we come to the 1990's. The collapse of the former Soviet Union and empire is truly unique in both scope and lack in most places of bloodshed. The only equivalent event is the collapse of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires in Latin America during and immediately following the Napoleonic era, but there was at least some fighting in all countries except Brazil.

So where did this unrealistic idea come from? Maybe Woodrow Wilson. In any case, it has been adopted into international law. Not because there is anything sacred about borders, but as a method of trying to limit wars.

And that is the crux of the matter. There is nothing unusual about changing borders, but it should be done peacefully and with the consent of the people concerned. Or better, borders as barriers should simply disappear, as is happening in the European Union and to a lesser extent between the US and its neighbors - and as happened in the US over 200 years ago.

last update 9 December 2000

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