Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Civil Affairs Association and Divergent Options Writing Contest which took place from April 7, 2020 to July 7, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.

Specialist Brandon White is a Civil Affairs Non-Commissioned Officer at the 478th Civil Affairs Battalion, and recently served on a Civil Affairs Team in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. As a civilian, he presently works as a Consultant for National Security and Defense at Capgemini Government Solutions, and previously served as a Legislative Assistant in the U.S. House of Representatives. He can be found on Twitter @bwhiteofficial and LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bwhiteofficial/. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  An Assessment of the Irrelevance of State Borders in 2035

Date Originally Written:  June 29, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  September 2, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes that by 2035, the primary drivers of civil instability and the main threats to human security will be cross-border, rendering states functionally border-less.

Summary:  By 2035, the primary drivers of conflict and competition will transcend the system of state borders that traditionally define national security policy. These threats will center on the physical security of individuals and communities, environmental crises, and economic vulnerability, and will demand a problem-solving approach that is similarly cross-border in nature.

Text:  Throughout the course of human history, there have been eras of great contrast: of peace and war, prosperity and poverty, vibrancy and plague. One consistent theme throughout has been the trend towards greater interconnectedness among people and the formation of bonds across physical and cultural divides. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 created the concept of territorial sovereignty[1] and the Montevideo Convention of 1933 required that a state have a defined territory and a permanent population[2]. The concept of territorial sovereignty has fundamentally shaped international relations and therefore every U.S. national security decision. Likewise, since the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the world has approached problem-solving within the construct of state borders. This approach is increasingly detrimental to global security because populations and the threats they face can rarely be confined in that way, with cross-border threats growing in prominence. By 2035, states will be functionally border-less as the primary threats to human security transcend the system of borders first conceived in 1648 and demand a different approach to solving them. These threats include the physical security of individuals and communities, environmental crises, and economic vulnerabilities.

Personal and community security includes protection from physical violence from state and non-state actors such as Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) or Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs), sectarian or ethnic groups, or violent criminals[3]. VEOs such as the Islamic State and Al-Shabaab violently pursue ethnic or religious homogenization and operate freely across state borders in the Middle East and Africa. TCOs such as MS-13 threaten vulnerable populations across the Northern Tier of Central America, leaving civilians with few options but to flee. These groups often seek out areas that are challenging for states to govern or maintain a meaningful presence, showing how easily a state’s territorial sovereignty can be undermined. As authoritarianism rises across the world[4], state-based repression will likely also increase, prompting migration alongside state-sanctioned violence. The Syrian Civil War is one example of how domestic political repression can lead to regional instability, create global migration crises, and intensify the spread of extremism. By the time a threat to a population’s physical security becomes a U.S. national security concern, it is certain that the threat would have major cross-border implications requiring the attention of U.S.-led, joint security organizations such as the Combined Joint Task Forces supporting Operation Inherent Resolve or operations in the Horn of Africa, or Joint Task Force-Bravo in the U.S. Southern Command Area of Responsibility, or other regional and multilateral entities.

Environmental crises linked to climate change are inherently cross-border, such as rising sea levels, drought, and the frequency of severe storms. With these types of events, food supplies become less reliable and more expensive, a lack of clean water heightens hygiene and sanitation concerns and the spread of preventable disease, and vulnerable populations are pressed to relocate resulting in economic decline and cross-border displacement. As a result, it is wise to anticipate increased conflict over scarce resources, mass migration toward more habitable areas, and faster spread of disease. Some experts have already suggested climate change may have played a role in increasing the tensions which led to the Syrian Civil War[5]. The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review highlighted the importance of addressing environmental threats because they act as “threat multipliers,” aggravating “political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence”[6]. Additionally, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report of 2014 detailed all aspects of human security, including economic, health, and food security, that will affect both rural and urban areas as a result of growing environmental threats[7]. For the Department of Defense (DoD), both Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Response operations and longer term, interagency coordinated stability operations will require a cross-border approach.

Globally, economic instability is growing in the form of extreme poverty, severe wealth inequality, and an overall lack of economic opportunity. These factors increase civil instability by fueling migration and enabling the exploitation of vulnerable individuals and communities. Due to the global recession triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic[8], these economic threats to human security are likely to worsen by 2035. Competition between the U.S. and China will also shape the national security landscape, and the ability to increase economic opportunity domestically and among regional and global partners will be a critical factor in the U.S.’ ability to ensure its own security. Already, the U.S. and Europe have struggled to manage large numbers of migrants seeking work and economic opportunity, which has exacerbated the economic anxieties of domestic populations and distracted from addressing underlying vulnerabilities[9]. The solutions to these problems are inherently cross-border, demanding creative regional and multilateral approaches to trade and investment, and the promotion of new, less exploitative, and more sustainable industries.

Upon accepting that the threat landscape in 2035 will be predominantly cross-border, national security professionals can begin to shape regional and multilateral solutions that address the underlying human factors of conflict and competition that often fester in the blind spots of state-based strategic interests. First, the U.S. can strengthen and contribute to the reform of regional and multilateral security organizations like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, political organizations like the Organization of American States, and economic organizations like regional development banks to ensure the U.S. has viable mechanisms for working with allies and partners to counter these cross-border threats. Second, the U.S. government can reassess its bureaucratic organization and associated legal authorities to ensure its efforts are not hindered by structural inefficiencies or limitations. Legal authorities and funding streams can be flexible enough to meet these challenges, and partnerships with multilateral institutions can be solidified. Whether in Syria, Central America, Afghanistan, or the Sahel, DoD is increasingly asked to address cross-border security threats stemming from human factors in conflict and competition. Therefore, in order to increase the likelihood of mission success across all theaters, DoD has a vested interest in working with interagency partners to drive the evolution of the U.S. approach to addressing the human factors of conflict and competition that will define the border-less 2035 threat landscape.


[1] Treaty of Westphalia. (1648, October 24). Retrieved from The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/17th_century/westphal.asp

[2] Convention on Rights and Duties of States. (1933, December 26). Retrieved from Organization of American States, Department of International Law: http://www.oas.org/juridico/english/sigs/a-40.html

[3] (1994). Human Development Report, 1994. United Nations Development Programme. New York: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from http://www.hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/reports/255/hdr_1994_en_complete_nostats.pdf

[4] Unit, E. I. (2020, January 21). Democracy Index 2019. Retrieved from Economist Intelligence Unit: https://www.eiu.com/topic/democracy-index

[5] Kelley, C. P., Mohtadi, S., Cane, M. A., Seager, R., & Kushnir, Y. (2015). Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(11), 3241-3246. Retrieved from https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/112/11/3241.full.pdf

[6] (2014). Quadrennial Defense Review. Washington, DC: Department of Defense. Retrieved from https://archive.defense.gov/pubs/2014_Quadrennial_Defense_Review.pdf

[7] (2014). Fifth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Geneva: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Retrieved from https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg2

[8] Lu, J. (2020, June 12). World Bank: Recession Is The Deepest In Decades. Retrieved from NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/06/12/873065968/world-bank-recession-is-the-deepest-in-decades

[9] Karasapan, O. (2017, April 12). Refugees, Migrants, and the Politics of Fear. Retrieved from Brookings: Future Development: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2017/04/12/refugees-migrants-and-the-politics-of-fear