24 May, 2011


Richard Burge, Chief Executive, writes:

Ashraf paused as two helicopters flew past his third floor office window to land at the ISAF HQ in central Kabul. The clatter subsided. You see, Richard, we are all Curzons children.

Meetings with Ashraf Ghani are always eventful offering insight, wisdom, and very often unexpected direction. He is a former presidential candidate in Afghanistan, the founder of the Institute for State Effectiveness in Washington DC, and now heading an independent Commission to lead his country through the process of transformation. His comment clearly made me look completely baffled. He smiled. Lord Curzons Romanes Lecture at Oxford in 1907 it is worth reading, he said with a tone which gave me the impression that he was setting the title of my next essay, and with surprise that I did not recognise immediately the link he had drawn.

When he gave the lecture, Curzon had just finished a posting as Viceroy of India, the First World War was round the corner, and he was yet to be Foreign Secretary (1919-24). The lecture is comprehensive (it runs to over 20 pages of close type you got your moneys worth from public lectures by celebrities in those days) on the nature of frontiers, their origins and their effects on international relations including their unintended consequences. He reviews the role of nature, geology and islands (and quotes the poet William Cowper, Mountains interposed, Make enemies of nations who had else, Like kindred drops been mingled into one).  He focuses on Afghanistan as a buffer state because he is interested in how they act as mutual frontiers between global powers (in this case the empires of Russia and Britain). He discusses how influence is wielded through proxies in such areas and how it is preserved; the buffer state possessing a national existence of its own, which is fortified by the territorial and political guarantee, either of the two Powers between whose dominions it lies and by whom it would otherwise inevitably be crushed, or by a number of great Powers interested in the preservation of the status quo. He recalls that, even in Europe, the failure of modern boundary commissions to do or be allowed to do their work properly leaves potentially explosive consequences from their unfinished or unfair completion of business. He reflects that frontiers and boundaries are as much about culture as geography, and people as of land. He says the evolution of frontiers is perhaps an art rather than a science. Jurisprudence plays a part and the conscience of nations is more and more involved.

I can see why Ashraf recommended this lecture; he was not just pondering the circumstances of his own country but the new circumstances in which frontiers have to be considered. Frontiers now have forms that Curzon could not have imagined. During the Cold War they covered whole continents or occupied states where proxy wars were fought thousands of miles away from the geographic frontiers of the great Powers concerned. Today, they are in the press and media, in the campaigning of civil society groups, in the international courts, in the Security Council of the UN, and in cyber space.  Does Curzons art of frontiers need to be recovered and applied to the multi-polar, multi-voiced world?

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