I'm writing a novel in which an isolationist republic has to open its borders following a series of volcanic eruptions in its territory that destroyed most of the crops and coal mines (the republic is currently in the industrial era). This nation can no longer feed its population because of the bad harvests and is in serious need for more coal to power its industries, so it has to open up trade with its neighbours.

I'd like to ask how would this republic go about it? Send messengers to every nation close to it, invite representatives and ambassadors to the capital, etc., or simply open the borders and let the traders in without involving foreign politics?

This is a big plot point in the story. Until now, I assumed diplomats and ambassadors would be invited into the capital for a tour and establishment of diplomatic relations. Is this how nations in our world opened up after a long period of isolation? If not, what is? Or is it hard to say and up to my judgement?

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    $\begingroup$ Have you looked at how Japan has dealt with this? They did take a close borders policy at some point, so they must have had to go through an opening process. In fact, they might be a really good example, since Japan is an island country and are even more isolated than if they had land borders with somebody. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Nov 24, 2019 at 13:30
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    $\begingroup$ @VLAZ - that is good. Lay that out into an answer with examples and you have my vote. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Nov 24, 2019 at 13:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Willk it's a research suggestion. I really don't know how Japan opened is borders again, I just know they were closed at one point. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Nov 24, 2019 at 13:51
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    $\begingroup$ In most of the industrial era until quite recently, "destroyed most of the crops" would lead promptly to famine and a large wave of emigration. The despot keeping the borders closed would likely be overthrown in the turmoil, and "opening the borders" would be a new policy of the new regime...but second-page stuff after the other, more important and immediate news of the day. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Nov 24, 2019 at 14:12
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    $\begingroup$ It depends on a lot of factors which you should carefully consider. How isolated was the country geographically 10's, 100's or 1000's of miles from its nearest neighbour? Is it an island or does it share a land border? If it shares a land border what is the nature of the terrain - mountains, marsh, forest, ice or desert? Do closed off roads even exist or could they be built quickly? Why was it isolated in the first place? Do other countries even know of its existence? And if they do what happened when traders or explorers last came calling? $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Nov 24, 2019 at 14:24

3 Answers 3


They will come to you

If your world is full of other cultures, especially in an industrial era, there are probably thousands of companies / people / merchants itching to take advantage of a new market and wanting to trade with your isolationist nation.

As soon as official channels send a signal indicating they are now 'open for business', then many nations would likely send trade envoys to meet, greet and gather knowledge of how to do business. I was a part of such a trade envoy to China in a relatively new industry, funded by our government (the Department of State Development), to take advantage of potential export markets.

So your nation would, in sequence:

  • Indicate it is ready to do business with, and perhaps create a new 'envoy' visa or similar that allows business owners and other foreign officials to enter
  • Create envoys of it's own to discuss it's importing requirements, protocols (to do with shipping, currency exchange etc.), tax implications and also to indicate export opportunities
  • Enable its own citizens to trade with other foreign companies. You could do this in many ways, however it is generally seen that a floating currency, a local stock exchange that interfaces with foreign ones, a common shipping protocol or infrastructure agreement, are starting points.
  • The government may also provide incentives for trade to 'get things going'. Your countries need is not new, in fact all current economies have 'needs', sometimes even needs that are vital or life-saving. Governments usually have trade agreements to get these, with incentives to trade such as lower tariffs, lower tax and stamp duties, or government spending in infrastructure specifically for that product (such as iron ore rail lines etc.) to fast track the receiving of these goods.

It would be an exciting time for your nation in question. A lot will change.


Open formal diplomatic relations

One thing your country should do if it hasn't done so yet is open embassies in and exchange ambassadors with every country it wants to deal with. This is how formal diplomatic communication is conducted between governments. Once established, your country will now have a way to make arrangements for trade or anything else with these other countries. There is no substitute for having your own representative keeping an eye on things happening in foreign capitals.

Assuming your country has resources that others are interested in, there will be traders showing up, legally or illegally. But if you want to regulate trade, then formal relations will be necessary to secure agreements with nations on the other side.

Note: Leveraging trade power and monopolies was the favored tactic of 19th century colonial powers to innocuously insert their influence into much of the rest of the world. For example, the British East India Company. Something to think about before flinging open those doors of trade.


It won't be done. It could be done, certainly, but it absolutely will not be.

Scenarios much like you describe are explained in the book The Dictator's Handbook. And the main thesis is, the dictator would massively prefer that most of the people in his country die horribly than to open the borders.

Example: After the 2004 Christmas Tsunami, many people tried to bring assistance to the affected countries. One group brought several trucks to Sri Lanka to assist in distributing aid. The government impounded the trucks and required that import duty be paid on them, duty amounting to much more than the purchase price of the trucks. Said duty supposedly being charged to protect the truck manufacturing industry in Sri Lanka. The result was that these trucks languished in an import yard for most of a year after the tsunami because the aid agency had blown all their cash on buying food and medicine and emergency shelters. Which aid sat in the warehouses at the airport, waiting for some way to move it.

In case after case, dictatorial leaders would far rather have their people die than let foreigners move about freely and give them ideas. Earthquake, flood, volcano, war, famine, plague, nothing persuaded them that it was time to let the foreigners in.

And there's a very strong (though evil) reason for that. If they let the foreigners in, then their own people can move around freely and talk to the foreigners, and each other. And that way leads to revolution pretty damn quick. Which the dictators absolutely will not allow if they can possibly avoid it.

So those trucks had to be kept out because they could not only move food and medicine. They could be used to move disgruntled people trying to organize a coup. They could move weapons to arm revolutionaries. They could move communication equipment, from radios to photocopy machines, that would inform a revolution. Nope. That absolutely will not be allowed.

  • $\begingroup$ The problem I see with this argument is that the country I'm describing is not a dictatorship, it's a democratic republic where citizens elect government officials. I don't see a revolution being a problem. Do you think the problems you've described still apply to a republic? Most people inside this country see the country as the preferred place to live, while the outside world is uncivilized and savage. I only see this as a potential problem, where the citizens themselves might disagree with opening up the borders, but hey, they're starving. $\endgroup$
    – D. Daniels
    Nov 26, 2019 at 16:41

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