Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
FRONTIERS, Natural. Natural frontiers is an expression which geography has lent to politics, and which should have its place in the history of the political ideas of our century.
—Forty of fifty years ago the system of natural frontiers was very warmly debated. It was pretended that geography itself and determined the limits of states, that mountains and rivers were limits established by nature to determine the question of property between nations. The natural boundaries of France, for example, were the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Rhine; she had then a right to take possession of Belgium, and of the left bank of the Rhine as far as its mouth. This was no usurpation on her part; it was the application of a principle of natural right. That is the manner in which under the empire and again also under the restoration it was the duty of every good Frenchman to understand geography. It is true that on the other side of the Rhine geography was not understood in the same way. The Rhine, instead of being a river forming the boundary between France and Germany, was a river entirely German, and its valley itself, from its source to its mouth, was also entirely German. Alsace by this claim should belong to Germany; France should stop at the Vosges. Lorraine itself, according to some geographical line of other, less visible upon the map than the Vosges are, should also belong to Germany. Its two principal rivers, the Moselle and the Meuse, run toward the Rhine.
—It is a curious thing, but I have never seen a single nation which, by virtue of the system of natural frontiers, has dreamt of restricting its possessions and its limits. It is always for the purpose of extending its empire that each nation studies in geography its natural boundaries. It places them always beyond its territory, never within it.
—Hence the doubts which I have had for a long time concerning the excellence of the system of natural frontiers; not that I pretend absolutely that there are no natural limits. I willingly recognize that the Mediterranean on south and the ocean on the west are the natural limits of France. Do these natural frontiers prevent her from possessing, by a very good title, Algeria? Did not England, during the hundred years war, posses, despite her natural frontiers, a great portion of France? And how many different countries does she still possess beyond the seas! Where are then the natural frontiers of England? Try to confine her within them. What does this expression mean which admits of such different applications? Must this system be regarded as an old discredited theory, and worthy of the discredit into which it has fallen? Must it be believed that there are only political frontiers, determined by the varying law of treaties, and dependent upon the chances of war? Have only the workings of force and of hazard a share in the destiny of nations? Had not geography also its influence?
—I grant that there are upon the surface of the earth places more or less great in extent, which seem separated from each other by seas, mountains and rivers, and which form, thanks to these boundaries, distinct domains. Nations willingly occupy these distinct domains, calling them their countries. But we must not believe that these countries are territories always having the same extent and the same configuration. There are ordinarily upon the confines of these domains, more or less separated from each other, more or less clearly assigned to such or such a people, uncertain tracts which seem to belong to both the neighboring nations, and which through chance fall sometimes to the lot of one nation and sometimes to that of the other. It is toward these doubtful countries that ambition and the spirit of conquest are directed.
—The states which are the best and most naturally bounded have sides open and wanting in natural defenses. As for instance, France, on the north. It must be said that these natural defenses—seas, mountains, rivers—have, according to the times and the spirit of the people, very different uses. There are times when the sea separates nations, and there are times when it unites them. Horace called the ocean the great divider of nations; we call it, on the contrary, the bond of the world. These are times when mountains are crossed only with infinite trouble. It was necessary to be a Hercules or a Hannibal to cross the Alps; in these days of disunion and division, one side of a mountain is altogether different from the other. The sides differ in language, in manners and in ideas. As nations have the bad habit of hating all the more that which they understand the least, the people of the two opposite sides emulate each other in mutual hatred, and they do not bear the fatigue of crossing the mountain except to go and fight their neighbors on the other side. Do not let us speak too ill of war; it is war ordinarily that commences to open mountains; but once opened by war, the mountains are open also to commerce; merchants pass where soldiers have passed; engineers follow; they mark out paths over these steep mountains. We are astonished, in descending from the Jura into the valley of the lake of Geneva, by a succession of magnificent views varying at each turn of the road. So much for those inaccessible peaks which must separate nations! A carriage drive is all that is necessary to cross them; where are the natural frontiers?
—It is the same story for rivers as for mountains. How far we are from the time when Araxes was indignant at the bridge which united the two banks, pontem indignatus Araxes. The rivers running under bridges no longer separate countries; they unite them; they are bonds instead of being obstacles; where then, once more, are the natural frontiers?
—To these abolitions of obstacles, that is, frontiers, add that last and greatest abolition of space, the speed of the railways, and what do you say now of the separation of states? If governments would only practice more and more the good habit of not awakening travelers, to ask their passports at the frontier, we could while asleep cross five or six states. Are there then no longer frontiers in Europe? Assuredly there are, but frontiers which one runs the risk of not noticing unless he pays great attention, or unless the customs officer comes to warn him that he has passed into another country. Custom houses tend each day to become more and more the only natural and visible frontiers which exist in Europe. I do not advocate the unity of Europe. Far from it. Europe is already rather monotonous. She has the monotony of civilization; make her a unit, and she will have the monotony of servitude. What she preserves of liberty is by reason of her want of unit.
—Natural frontiers to-day are the needs and the wishes of the people. Place the Alps upon the Vosges and all that height of mountains will not prevent Alsace from being French, because such is her interest, such is her determined wish. Place the Rhine on the northern frontier of France; if the inhabitants of the Rhenish provinces do not wish to be French; if the ideas, the laws, the administration of France do not please them, it will be difficult to affirm that the Rhine is the natural frontier of France; nature will yield to the will of man; for such is the destiny of our century, that the will of the people is stronger than all fortresses, than all mountains, than all rivers, than all lines of demarcation, natural or not.
—Do you think that if Belgium is some day united to France, it will be because the Rhine and the Meuse are the natural frontiers of France? No, the Meuse is no more a natural frontier of France than the Oise or the Somme. Belgium will be united to France because she has the same interests of commerce, of industry and of liberty. A frontier to-day is the opposition and the contrast of two peoples. It is not the Pyrenees which separate France from Spain, it is the difference in manners and customs. Mountains could, during a long time, serve as frontiers, when the nations were divided and hostile: mountains were then ramparts; but these ramparts, like those of St. Quentin, of Leipzig and of Frankfort, the hand of civilization has battered down, as a very long time ago it battered down the old feudal castles, where voluntary captivity alone could guarantee safety. Military dungeons, city ramparts, natural frontiers, are all obsolete expressions, which belong to the past and have nothing to do with the future.
—The wish to fix the boundaries of France by the Jura, the Vosges and the Ardennes, or to extend it to the Rhine, is a pretension equally out of date; it is a forgetfulness of the spirit of our century, in which frontiers are made by the will of nations, and no longer by nature. Man no longer obeys nature, nature obeys man. A nation's destiny is no longer determined by its geography; it imposes upon geography the laws of its own will.
—Nations make their frontiers; nations themselves sometimes raise up barriers between themselves and their neighbors, and sometimes destroy the barriers which separate them from a friendly nation; nations themselves close or open their territory to one another, and recede from or approach one another ready to take up arms to repulse whoever would wish to prevent these unions or these divorces, equally peaceable, equally legitimate, provided their wills have strength and perseverance. Such is the new state of the world.
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