BORDERLINE

By Moisés Naím
Sunday, May 28, 2006

A country's borders should not be confused with those familiar dotted lines drawn on some musty old map of nation-states. In an era of mass migration, globalization and instant communication, a map reflecting the world's true boundaries would be a crosscutting, high-tech and multidimensional affair.

Where is the real U.S. border, for example, when U.S. customs agents check containers in the port of Amsterdam? Where should national borders be marked when drug traffickers launder money through illegal financial transactions that crisscross the globe electronically, violating multiple jurisdictions? How would border checkpoints help record companies that discover pirated copies of their latest offering for sale in cyberspace -- long before the legitimate product even reaches stores? And when U.S. health officials fan out across Asia seeking to contain a disease outbreak, where do national lines truly lie?

Governments and citizens are used to thinking of a border as a real, physical place: a fence, a shoreline, a desert or a mountain pass. But while geography still matters, today's borders are being redefined and redrawn in unexpected ways. They are fluid, constantly remade by technology, new laws and institutions, and the realities of international commerce -- illicit as well as legitimate. They are also increasingly intangible, living in a virtual and electronic space.

In this world, the United States is adjacent not just to Mexico and Canada but also to China and Bolivia. Italy now borders on Nigeria, and France on Mali.

These borders cannot be protected with motion sensors or National Guard troops.

Political unions, economic reforms and breakthroughs in technology and business came together to revolutionize the world's borders during the 1990s.

It was a decade during which a global passion for free markets erupted. From Latin America to Eastern Europe, politicians and their electorates felt that prosperity was possible by enticing foreigners to invest, tourists to visit, traders to import and export, banks to move funds freely in and out of countries, and businesses to operate free of heavy regulations.

It was also a decade when nations with long histories of conflict or animosity surprised the world by dismantling or rearranging their borders through political unions and trade agreements. The European Union kicked into high gear; Argentina, Brazil and rival South American nations formed a regional customs union; and Mexico joined Canada and the United States in their own trade agreement. These efforts sought to maximize economic growth and political harmony (or so the leaders hoped).

Meanwhile, new technologies were vastly reducing the economic and business importance of distance and geography. The only prices that dropped faster than shipping a cargo container from Shanghai to Los Angeles were those for sending e-mail, making phone calls, or rapid-firing text and images across borders.

With borders much more fluid, opportunities for profit multiplied and cross-border activity boomed. Suddenly it seemed normal to invest in Thailand, visit China, trade in exotic currencies, take seasonal jobs in different countries or download stolen software from Bulgarian Web sites.

Even something as simple as buying a counterfeit Prada handbag on the streets of Manhattan or Washington represented the final step in a long journey of border crossings. The bag's original design -- probably acquired or stolen in Europe -- was transported electronically or physically to China. There, the leather, zippers, belts and buckles were procured and assembled into tens of thousands of counterfeit handbags. The finished products were then smuggled onto containers officially carrying, say, industrial valves, to ports such as Naples or New York.

Once the handbags reached these final markets, street merchants took over -- often African immigrants who themselves were smuggled across borders by human-trafficking networks. Yes, the poorly paid street vendors are usually as illegal as the goods they're peddling. Meanwhile, the overall counterfeit enterprise reaped enormous cash profits that were converted into bank deposits and laundered across the globe electronically, again trespassing across multiple borders.


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