What to think of borders? (as a liberal)

Lees hier het pdf van dit artikel. In spring 2014, the Van Mierlo Foundation publishes an essay on how social-liberals deal with borders. Idee interviews one of the authors of this essay, Frank van Mil, scientific director of the foundation. By Cato van Hasselt The typical progressive liberal has a natural inclination to downplay the significance of borders. To many, the concept of borders reeks of provincialism and stands in stark contrast to the open-minded cosmopolitan globetrotter that the progressive liberal believes one should be. In reality, however, borders are real, and hard to ignore. Even the most unbiased among us have not only physical borders to deal with, but also the notion so entrenched in all human beings: that the existence of a ‘we’ automatically means that there also is a ‘them.’ We need the ‘them’ to define who we are. However much we try, we cannot escape feeling closer to some people than others. It can be people within our own community, or with whom we share our preferences, our culture or our language, things still closely marked by international borders even in a globalised world. How does the progressive cosmopolitan liberal cope with a prophetic global order that places individuals rather than communities at its heart, and the somewhat uncomfortable reality of borders? Frank van Mil elaborates on a guiding principle for social-liberals on the individual, state and European level: think and act internationally. Flexible not fixed "The first thing we need to do is accept the fact that borders exist, that they are real and that they need to be dealt with. Borders, however, are not static; they can be created, dissolved, blurred, shifted and crossed. In spite of twentieth century nationalistic efforts to prove otherwise, borders do not mark an abrupt division between people and cultures; they present a grey area in which one culture gradually fades into the next. Increased globalisation has further stressed the flexibility of the concept of borders. European integration has made physical borders between many of the European states obsolete. By transferring a substantial amount of sovereignty to a supranational order, the European Union has, in addition to increasing the dominance of international law, challenged the notion that national borders bound the sovereignty of states. International companies and civil society have shown even less regard for geographical barriers, connecting people from diverging cultures while spreading their activities worldwide. Cosmopolitan liberals applaud this universal strain of internationalist thinking." "These developments have apparently led many people to believe that borders have become increasingly irrelevant; they no longer have a place in their conception of the international order and consequently run the risk of being ignored in the liberal discourse. The flexibility of borders does not mean that they will cease to exist, however. People will always be inclined to draw lines in order to distinguish themselves from others, to provide themselves with a feeling of particularity. The tendency to overemphasise the value of universalism gives little weight to this human characteristic, which nonetheless presents us with an inescapable tension. Thinking internationally means that we should approach this tension head-on, with an open-minded attitude. Without almost contemp-tuously pretending borders are only of minor importance in an ever-globalising world, we need to ask ourselves what they mean to us, and subsequently, how they should be treated." An open-minded attitude "Liberal philosophy as such offers little guidance on the subject. As a first guideline, liberals should express (a certain amount of ) solidarity with the world at large, where the ultimate aim is to bring individual freedom to all. But how this is to be achieved in practice is not clear. This ultimate goal should nonetheless define the way we think and act internationally, starting with our individual attitude. The problem is that from an individual perspective international issues seem so incomprehensibly large and complex that we feel somewhat dwarfed by them. As mere individuals we do not feel we can exert any influence whatsoever on international development. A second guideline offers us some more footing. From the concept of solidarity flows the principle of reciprocity: treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves. This means granting others the individual freedoms we ourselves enjoy. Translating the principle of reciprocity in practice means that we ask ourselves, ‘what if this were happening to me?’ Does the answer to that question seem reasonable, acceptable? Turning the question around will help to gain a perspective on international issues in which the reci-procity principle is respected." "Th e universal scope of liberalism does not mean that these principles should be equally applicable to the world at large: we can feel more concerned with the fate of Ukrainians than with that of Mexicans – or vice versa. Accepting the social-liberal ideal of freedom also means you acknowledge that people can feel more connected with those that they can relate to, either through geographical proximity, common culture, language or shared values. We can take these differences into consideration when thinking and acting internationally, as long as we do not take them to be fixed, unchangeable facts. The open recognition of particularities will permit an open-minded approach that serves our own interest by enabling us to learn from others, to profit from their knowledge, ideas and cultures. At the same time this attitude will help us contribute to making borders less rigid, to expand the grey area and to expose others to the merits of individual freedom." State intervention "Presuming that the state reflects (or should reflect) the will of the people, the open-minded attitude is transferable to the state level. Just like the individual, the state should be guided in its actions by the attempt to realise individual freedom for all. In acting beyond state borders the question immediately arises how interference is compatible with the other important liberal principles of sovereignty and self-determination. This tension is sometimes judged to be hypocrit-ical but it is actually just a matter of conflicting principles, demanding a practical weighing for every situation at hand. Liberals agree that international action can be justified on humanitarian grounds, or in case of serious human rights violations. This leaves the many cases of international intervention unaccounted for, where the liberal argumentation supporting intervention is less clear-cut. In these cases action is only justified when sufficient public support exists in the acting and the receiving states." "If we accept the idea that citizens will relate more to the citizens of some states than to those of others, this means that states will have more legitimacy to act in cases where a stronger connection is felt. This does not necessarily imply geographical proximity. Australians feel culturally much closer to the United Kingdom than to Thailand. It does mean, however, that the receptiveness of both populations is crucial in legitimising the state interference with existing borders. As stated above, state sovereignty does not set borders in stone, stronger yet, the relativity and flexibility of borders is instrumental in the quest for actively promoting the principle of individual freedom. However attractive this may be, a state cannot do so without common consent. Hence, the individual open-minded attitude is crucial in providing the state with the legitimacy to make the flexibility of borders instrumental in attaining its international goal." The European Union "Europe is an ultimate example of how the blurring of borders has been instrumental in promoting individual freedom. The progressive liberal cosmopolitan is tempted to envision a gradual expansion of the Union, wherein more and more countries embrace liberal values by their own consent. This, however, would not do sufficient justice to the reality of borders. Thinking and acting internationally means that we should openly discuss whether ‘we’ relate enough to ‘them’ to legitimise state action. Taking bor-ders seriously means that you have a duty to ask straight up who belongs to the European Union and who does not. This question deserves a place in the public discourse; an open discussion will help to create the support needed for further European integration by addressing the ines-capable tension between the universal and the particular. Pretending borders are of no importance estranges the entire endeavour from the way people experience the world, and not only from those we like to dismiss as provincial, conservative or narrow minded. Ignoring the reality of borders will also undermine the development of a credible social-liberal view on European integration, for even the most progressive liberal is too much human not to feel part of some ‘we’." "Thinking and acting internationally means that this discourse should be marked by an open-minded attitude in which the ‘we’ and the ‘them’ are subject to on-going reconsideration. When the borders turn out to artificially mark an out-dated distinction, the state needs to be ready to adjust them accordingly."   Cato van Hasselt is editor of Idee.   Heeft dit artikel uw interesse gewekt? Klik hier voor meer info en abonnementen. – – Dit artikel verscheen in idee nr. 6 2013: Crossing European borders, en is te vinden bij de onderwerpen grenzen, interviews en liberalisme.