Recently there has been a great hue and cry over how the United States government has attempted to handle the influx of refugees – many of whom are small children – from the persistent violence that plagues Central American countries like Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras. In response, several political commentators in the United States have insisted that a relaxed federal posture on the border and providing shelter for the refugees threatens the viability of the United States as a nation.
For example, former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin opined that “without borders, there is no nation.” Similarly, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan asked the question “is a nation without borders a nation?“
Think what you will about the crisis on the southern border of the United States; that’s a political matter that will generate a variety of reasonable (and some unreasonable) perspectives on the matter. But when it comes to the issue of what constitutes a nation and how a nation is defined, that’s a matter for social scientists.
As a political anthropologist, I accept that the conventional use for nation is as a synonym for country or state. But when folks suggest that a nation is only as real as its borders, then it is necessary to offer a bit of perspective on the topic from the disciplines of political science, sociology and anthropology.
The etymology of “nation” traces back to the Latin “natio“, which means “that which has been born”. In effect, nation is a common people. Originally, the concept of nation reflected what is conventionally regarded as ethnicity today. When you were born, you were born into a nation; a community, a people. You were part of that nation and that nation was comprised of you and your compatriots.
As nationalism swept through Europe, nations became fixed within defined political units – states. Here the people and the political entity became intertwined. A nation was that which filled a state and a state was that which was filled with a people. This led to the rise of the nation-state throughout Europe in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. But on the matter of borders, it is crucial to understand that these defined the state, not the people.
Keep in mind that nation-states were seldom, if ever, homogeneous. Minority communities – and at times minority nations – existed in nearly every nation-state and were often marginalized, disenfranchised and suppressed in order to further the aspirations of the majority nation.
Returning to the more recent debate over nations and borders in the American political discourse, one must first recognize that there is not a singular nation that resides within the United States. The US is a multi-national country where myriad different nations reside within a singular political entity. This is not to say that Americans lack a sense of collective identity; indeed Americans have shared historical, ideological and commemorative basis through which a common identity is constructed.
Americans do have collective identity, but it is fundamentally different from classic national identity. The political scientist Benedict Anderson has argued, that in countries like the United States, the collective identity of a heterogeneous population is an “imagined community” constructed through powerful ideals, secular rituals and common symbols.
While Anderson famously identified borders, as articulated through the production of official maps, as a key component, along with museums and a census, in facilitating the construction of imagined communities, more recent scholarship has demonstrated that the flexibility and permeability of borders in an increasingly globalized world has not necessarily undermined the strength of imagined communities.
In reality, borders have neither prevented nor provided for the actualization of nations. Nations have certainly existed within recognized borders, but nations have also existed without established borders. Few would argue that the Kurds are not a nation; however, for centuries the Kurdish people have been without a state that has recognized borders. Clearly the Kurds do not cease to be a nation simply because the prevailing international and regional powers prevent the realization of a Kurdish state.
Similarly, in the United States, American Indian nations are recognized by the federal government without corresponding sovereign territory where its nation is situated. While the reservation system and semi-autonomous nature of American Indian nations are a sort of middle ground here, the fact remains that many members of these nations do not reside within the confines of the reservation borders and the borders do not have much if any bearing on whether the American Indian nations exist. To put it more succinctly, if the reservation system and semi-autonomy of American Indian nations disappeared tomorrow, the nations would continue to exist.
Alternatively, the State of Israel has long refused to declare its borders due to the continuing conflict between it and its neighbors. Does Israel’s absence of recognized borders impact its ability to function as a nation? Certainly not. The Jewish people have been a nation long before the creation of Israel and will continue to be with or without declared borders.
To return to the statements made by Sarah Palin and Peggy Noonan; the response to Sarah Palin is “No, clearly nations can exist without borders” and to Peggy Noonan the answer is “Yes, borders are an aspect we associate with nations, but borders do not a nation make.”