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IR director gives lecture on the world's strangest borders during Family Weekend

Professor Ken Schultz

Professor Kenneth Schultz, director of the Stanford Program in International Relations.

In February, thousands of family members arrived at Stanford for Family Weekend to see the campus, spend time with their students, and get a taste of undergraduate life. Parents even had the chance to attend faculty lectures, including one led by Professor Kenneth Schultz, director of the Program in International Relations, on The World’s Strangest Borders and How They Got That Way.

Speaking to a packed audience in Cubberley Auditorium, Schultz explored the origins and importance of international borders by focusing on some of the world’s strangest boundaries. At the start of his lecture, he displayed a 3D map of the globe, pointing out natural landmarks including deserts, forests, mountains, and rivers. “What you don’t see, when you look at this map, is a major feature that is very important for international politics, but also for people’s lives, and those are the borders: the lines that separate states from each other,” he explained. “These are not products of nature; these are products of humanity.”

Audience members

Borders have been shaped by factors including geography, warfare, and colonialism, and as long as there have been borders, there have been disputes over borders, Schultz emphasized. He showed the audience data on regions that have been the subject of territorial dispute between states in the post-World War II period. He collected the data with the help of undergraduate research assistants through the Summer Research College, a 10-week program designed to foster close intellectual exchange by providing students the opportunity to engage in research with Stanford faculty.

In the process of gathering the data, Schultz ran across many interesting stories of how certain borders were formed and why some have been contested. “The world’s borders are, in some cases, shaped by natural processes, such as the flow of rivers or the rise of mountains, but they are, first and foremost, human creations,” he explained. “As human creations, borders often reflect our human qualities and imperfections, such as aggression, greed, and ignorance.”

For example, the Caprivi Strip in Namibia, a narrow strip of land that juts out eastward, was created during the “Scramble for Africa” so that Germany could gain access to the Zambezi river and connect its imperial holdings in the East and West. Unfortunately for Germany, the Zambezi river turned out to be unnavigable. Additionally, the creation of the strip, which borders Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, generated many problems for its inhabitants by dividing groups of people who shared ethnic and linguistic similarities. Furthermore, because of the distance of the strip from the rest of the country, it is an area that has experienced armed conflict and poor governance.

“The Caprivi Strip is an example of how the arbitrary drawing of boundaries by the Europeans created real issues for the people who lived there,” he said.

Ken Schultz

In the remainder of his talk, Schultz examined other border irregularities and disputes between countries around the globe, including Spain and Morocco, Egypt and Sudan, Chile and Argentina, and the Netherlands and Belgium.

He ended with a focus on the U.S. border with Mexico, zooming in on the boundary between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, which is separated by the Rio Grande. Schultz demonstrated how the border moved dramatically as the river changed its shaped, so that areas of the U.S. became a part of Mexico and vice versa. Eventually, the neighboring countries agreed to build a concrete channel so the international border would no longer shift with the meandering waterway. He asked the audience to think about a baby born on the Mexican side of the border, and how that child’s life expectancy and opportunities would be impacted by their place of birth. “Think about how arbitrary it is that a baby born was born in Mexico and not the U.S. because that’s where we carved the channel.”

As he concluded his talk, Schultz reminded attendees that borders—such as the one between the U.S. and Mexico—have important consequences for people around the globe. “These lines on the map are the product of arbitrary decisions not always motivated by the best of intentions. And yet, what side you are born on can have tremendous implications for your life,” he said. “So, I want to close by asking you what that might mean for our responsibilities to one another as human beings, even if we happen to have been born on different sides of these lines.”