Regarding Rights

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Drifting Sovereignty

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By Marie-Eve Loiselle

Centre for International Governance and Justice

Sea Monsters by Dennis Kim http://tinyurl.com/nuanaq8

Sea Monsters by Dennis Kim
http://tinyurl.com/nuanaq8

Berkeley Professor of Political Science Wendy Brown’s latest book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty would make an interesting bedside read for Australian Immigration and Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison.

On the 7th of May, Minister Morrison unveiled the Australian Government’s new border policy during an address to the Lowy Institute for International Policy. The creation of the Australian Border Force (ABF) will see the merging of immigration and customs into a single portfolio. It will be headed by a Commissioner holding the same status as other security agency chiefs, including the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, the Chief of the Defence Force, and the Director General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). The ABF will have increased intelligence gathering and analytical capabilities, to be co-ordinated from a new headquarters in Canberra; the government will invest $88 million in funding to expand border intelligence capability and the screening of high-risk cargo. The headquarters will also house the Strategic Border Command and the National Border Targeting Centre. A new Australian Border Force College will be set up to ensure the ABF is staffed with adequately-trained personnel.

According to Minister Morrison, these measures are necessary because:

Our borders define a space within which, as sovereign nation states, we can apply the rule of law, operate our democracy, conduct our commerce, foster free markets, establish property rights, create the space for civil society, enable expression of culture and provide for the freedom and liberties of all of our citizens … Our border creates the space for us to be who we are and to become everything we can be as a nation. 

Yet, Minister Morrison argues, in an ever more globalised world, Australia faces an “increasing threat posed by those who would seek to do us harm, threaten our sovereignty and undermine our way of life.” Expanding international communication, cross-border linkages, trade, travel, investment, and financial flows could menace the economy, security, and identity of the Australian nation-state if exploited by transnational organised criminal groups. Thus, “protecting our borders requires a range of functions to manage the flow of people and goods across a border continuum, not just a border entry point.” And so, Morrison asserts, “Our border is not just a line on a map. Our border is a national asset. It holds economic, social and strategic value for our nation.”

Minister Morrison’s words are a striking reflection of a recent phenomenon identified by Wendy Brown in her book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. Brown holds that authoritarian and democratic states alike, sensing their sovereignty waning in a globalised world, embark on a quest for border fortification as a way of projecting power. While the focus of Brown’s book is on the increased reliance on the building of physical walls by nation-states to protect their borders since 11 September 2001[1], her discussion is relevant to the Australian context where military capabilities build on the sheer power of the open sea to wall the nation in and the ‘other’ out.

Brown explains that in the post-cold war era, especially in the US, the border has been discursively constructed as a point of entry for various threats to the nation that have been merged into the single image of the alien danger. This reflects fears of challenges to hegemonic culture, language, and race posed by a high number of immigrants. This fear is further increased by discourses that cast foreign labour, multiculturalism, and terrorism as the causes of decreased state protective capacities, warranting walling-in the nation under threat

The fear of the alien, in turn produces a desire for both containment and impermeability that is fulfilled by walls, whereby the enemy is stopped from invading and taking over what belongs to the nation. For Brown, walls respond to this need for containment in a globalised world by producing “a spatialIy demarcated ‘us,’ national identity, and national political scale when these can no longer be fashioned from conceits of national political or economic autonomy, demographic homogeneity, or shared history, culture, and values.”[2]

Thus, the renewed interest in building walls and other forms of border management addresses a desire for sovereign order. They are built to project an image of national strength in the face of the growing incapacity of the state to face security challenges that are transnational, diffused, and often imperceptible. Their popularity as a protective mechanism springs from the reassurance they provide in mitigating psychological anxieties about the erosion of nation-states’ sovereignty through cross-border movement and other external threats. Walls address threats to the very identity and powers of the state through a “theatricalized and spectacularized performance of sovereign power at aspirational or actual national borders.”[3] This performative function, Brown argues, helps explain the recourse to walls despite empirical evidence to the effect that they often fail to stop what they are built to prevent.

From a security perspective, Brown remarks that barriers are paralleled with a blurring between internal and external policing. To illustrate her point she uses the example of the push for the criminalisation and imprisonment of undocumented migrants in the United States in lieu of their deportation. This blurring is also apparent in Australia’s military-led and unambiguously named Operation Sovereign Border.

Brown claims that new border policies to counter migration, crime, and terrorism risk “generat[ing] an increasingly closed and policed collective identity in place of the open society,”[4] thus contributing to the development of new forms of xenophobia and parochialism. The Lowy address by Australia’s Immigration Minister does little to allay such sentiments.


[1] Since 11 September 2001, 28 border walls have been planned and/or erected. This more than doubles the number of walls that were standing before that date (20 walls): See Elisabeth Vallet and Charles-Philippe David (2012), “Introduction: The (Re)Building of the Wall in International Relations”, Journal of Borderlands Studies, Vol. 27, No. 2, pp. 111-119, p. 113.

[2] Wendy Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, (Zone Books, Brooklyn, 2010), p. 119.

[3] Brown, p. 26.

[4] Brown, p. 40.

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