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A cursory review of the daily news reveals a world in which borders are in flux, control of territory is increasingly contested both within and between sovereign entities and the dimensions of modern maps are being challenged in stark and destabilizing ways.

  • Russia annexed Crimea and currently threatens the efficacy of Ukraine.
  • Iraq is consumed by armed conflict while the Islamic State has established a caliphate that stretches across parts of the territory of Syria and Iraq.
  • Scotland's ultimately unsuccessful referendum on independence from the U.K. has raised questions about the relationship between Westminster and all of its constituent parts.
  • The Spanish government is dealing with another separatist movement, this time from Catalonia.
  • Hong Kong’s citizens are protesting against the Chinese government.
National borders have always been subject to change. The past century has seen a hyper-proliferation of sovereign states resulting from crumbling empires, two world wars and the fall of the Soviet Union.
The changing maps of the early 21st century, however, are the result of the interplay of increasingly powerful disruptive forces, including globalization, social media, resource competition, weapons proliferation and the triumph of ethnic and sectarian identities over national ones. These forces are separating historical and cultural allegiances from the political states to which they belong. They are also forcing sovereign governments to invest increasingly stretched resources and explore novel sovereignty arrangements in order to maintain control of the territory, resources, populations and institutions within their prescribed borders.
Stable states with strong and established institutions may be more resilient to these sovereignty challenges, but they are not immune. For example, in the United States, political divisions and societal fissures have produced stagnation and uncertainty on policy issues critical to core functions of sovereign states, such as border control.
Competition between states seeking to exercise exclusive control over contested territory—for example, the Korean Peninsula and the South China and East China Seas—is also shaping the future dimensions of the international system and contributing to competition, crisis and conflict in the 21st century.

Changing borders and boundaries and contested or shared sovereignty all have implications for border and physical security and for the predictability that is crucial to the private sector on tax, regulatory and administrative issues. In addition, new—if unofficial—dimensions of the international system will soon demand new maps that more accurately reflect where control and influence truly rest. Public and private sector enterprises will therefore need to adopt new tools and methods for thinking about and exploring disruptive shifts in governance and sovereignty—such as scenario planning and tabletop gaming—to help anticipate and manage risk in a complex and fluid world.
Tate Nurkin is managing director, consulting and thought leadership, for IHS Aerospace, Defense, and Security
Posted January 29, 2015

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