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The changing forms and nature of borders

Book review of: Gabriel Popescu. Bordering and Ordering the Twenty-first Century: Understanding Borders
Olivier Walther
Bibliographical reference

Gabriel Popescu. 2012. Bordering and Ordering the Twenty-first Century: Understanding Borders. Plymouth, Rowman & Littlefield.

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Understanding BordersFull size image
Credits : © Rowman and Littlefield

1Contemporary borders are not always where you would expect them to be. On a flight to America, for instance, the crew will inform you that passengers are not allowed to congregate in groups around the toilets or anywhere in the aircraft. This US State Department regulation applies whether you are on Swiss soil waiting for takeoff, contemplating the Atlantic Ocean at an altitude of 33’000 feet above international waters, or landing at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City. Borders are no longer exclusively the linear lines that bound the mosaic of states but are increasingly conceived as a network of interrelated controls that apply to people, goods, and ideas travelling in the globalized world. Their power is not to be found only in the hands of the immigration or custom officer working at the border posts but also in a variety of places and through various technologies that can select those that have been judged as legitimate to enter national territories.

2The changing forms and nature of borders have, of course, a lot to do with the transformations of the nation-states in an era of intense economic globalization and political regional integration. As Popescu’s (2012) book on Bordering and Ordering the Twenty-first Century clearly indicates in its introduction, these transformations and their impacts on borders are attracting increasing attention from a variety of disciplines. The author shows that borders must nowadays guarantee security in an environment characterized by increasing cross-border mobility. In a paradoxical sense, “Borders now have to allow mobility while simultaneously protecting against its side effects” (26), and provide a fascinating window to analyze simultaneously the space of flows and the space of places.

3Popescu retraces the roots of the scholarly interest in borders – starting with the approaches that focused on the historical evolution and physical features of borders in the 1960s, to poststructuralist and postmodern approaches that aimed at understanding the process of bordering since the late 1980s – and elaborates on more recent approaches that deal with borders as discursively constructed objects, as object of power recognition and as institutions in the globalized world. The book then addresses how borders were conceived in the (European) history before tackling the main issues related to borders in an era of globalization. The author reviews a series of phenomena that are particularly affected by the development of transnational flows, including transnational corporations, global economic, political and human rights institutions, and terrorism, which has put a particularly dreadful face to transnationalism.

4More than 10 years after the 9/11 events, the study of non-state sponsored terrorist activities raises two main crucial issues. The first issue is related to what should the response of states to terrorism be. The author argues in that respect that “in a world full of border lines, only comprehensive cross-border collaboration can offer an effective avenue for counteracting transitional terror networks” (60). As is well known, such a global and concerted collaboration is still missing and most of the attempts to tackle the roots of terrorism have been based on unilateral efforts. According to the author, the fact that states seek to address a global problem through national strategies illuminates their “inability to think outside the framework of state borders” (60). This, of course, implies that states need to develop a new understanding of global space that would not consider space as a mosaic of antagonist states as in the classical geopolitical approach. The second crucial issue that terrorism raises is related to the spatiality of terrorism. The ability of terrorism organizations such as al-Qaeda to control distance without trying to control surface is at odds with the territorial notion of states. While terrorists’ power rests on the possibility of being home anywhere without having to support the cost of controlling the space between the places, the power of states is built on the ability to control movement, and impose “territories” of sovereignty that disrupt the circulation patterns of transnational groups.

5The tension between the development of transnational flows and the need of a better national security has been temporarily solved by developing selective strategies depending on where and how people and goods crossed national borders. In order to reconcile mobility and security, debordering and rebordering processes have been implemented by most of the developed countries and their surrounding partners since the fall of the Berlin Wall. On the one hand free market labour, increased mobility of capital and monetary union policies have induced an increase of functional interdependencies and institutional partnerships. On the other hand the need to identify people and activities that are allowed to cross national borders has led to an increasing securitization of the periphery of large regional blocs by means of physical or administrative barriers. Far from having disappeared, contemporary borders have become more selective and have adapted to the globalized flows by being more and more sophisticated from a technological and administrative point of view. The author expresses interest in the seemingly new networked nature of borders, i.e. the fact that borders have moved from the periphery of the nation-state to a multitude of locations, such as airports, detention centres, sea vessels, gated communities, trucking centres or warehouses for example.

6Networked borders allow states to better control mobility – which is at the very source of their power – by monitoring flows from their origin to their final destination and developing interrelated databases that keep a record of the identity of flows. They provide a solution to the mobility vs. security dilemma by reconsidering the linearity of borders. The “highly selective permeability of borders” (82) that results from such a border is notably achieved by the implementation of sophisticated biometric technologies that can prevent illegal immigration and at the same time provide frequent travellers with rapid access through border controls. Those technologies are rarely the cause of large debates, notwithstanding the concerns, well expressed by the author, which they raise in terms of efficiency and democratic freedom.

7In parallel to securitization, borders continue to evolve through the implementation of experimental cross-border cooperation schemes. The author discusses the development of regional cross-border cooperation as well as the importance of larger regional integration blocs, such as the European Union (EU). At the regional level, virtually all European borders are to some extent permeated with cross-border partnerships. The development of such partnerships is well known for enhancing regional complementarities and local interests, in particular those from subnational authorities, civil society, and private companies. Border regions can potentially become vibrant interfaces when a dedicated strategy is developed to enhance the mobility of the labour market, the availability of real estate, the coordination of public transportation lines, or the development of innovative activities. This process can often lead to a certain reterritorialization of the border region. The interesting point is that a significant mismatch can often be observed between the level of integration achieved by local institutions and the level of functional interdependencies at the local and regional level. More broadly, Popescu reviews the various tools and strategies developed by the European Union to integrate new member states as well as the neighbourhood policy that intends to establish partnerships with non-EU members. The author also discusses the differences between the EU experience and other cross-border cooperation initiatives in North America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

8Bordering and Ordering the Twenty-first Century concludes with a particularly insightful synthesis of his key finding. Transnational activities have contributed to the reconsideration of the two properties of exhaustiveness and exclusivity that have traditionally been associated with nation-states in the modern world. States still consider themselves as the only guarantor of power but this property is increasingly contested by transnational flows and entities. Similarly, states assert that their sovereignty cannot be delegated to other actors but at the same time they rely increasing on a privatization of border control. The author’s experience of both border securitization and cross-border regionalism greatly enhance this book composed of few pages but many ideas. His exploration of how borders separate and bridge is critical to the development of a better understanding of border processing in the twenty-first century.

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Electronic reference

Olivier Walther, « The changing forms and nature of borders », Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Book Reviews, 2012, Online since 16 April 2012, connection on 29 March 2017. URL :

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About the author

Olivier Walther

Olivier Walther is a Researcher at the Department of Geography, Centre for Population, Poverty and Public Policy Studies in Luxembourg, and a Research Associate at the Department of Geography, University of Bordeaux III in France. He holds a PhD from the University of Lausanne and the University of Rouen. His major research interests lie in informal economic networks and cross-border integration in West Africa. Aside from West African studies, Olivier Walther is involved in several research projects dedicated to cross-border metropolitan integration in Europe. Email:

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