60+ countries now have border walls, and more than half of those erected since World War II were built since the year 2000.
UNITED NATIONS – President Trump has staked his presidency on the construction of a border wall with Mexico. The American public are split on the matter, and it’s not certain if Trump will fully realize his vision. But in many ways, he’s already won the war of ideas.
“Walls are deeply psychological,” says Tim Marshall, author of The Age of Walls: How Barriers Between Nations Are Changing Our World.
“It’s the wall in your mind that then leads you to build a physical wall,” Marshall says. “So Mr. Trump has succeeded in that, and he has divided people. He’s got a lot of people to believe the wall is necessary.”
And in that, Trump is not alone.
While conducting research for his new book, Marshall discovered that more than 60 countries now have border fortifications separating them from their neighbors, and that trend is accelerating.
“People think in terms of the Israel-Palestine and Trump wall, and think that’s it. When you look around the world, I’ll give you examples in Uzbekistan, I’ll give you examples in Kenya, across the Middle East and parts of Africa. This is happening around the world and for the foreseeable future these walls are not coming down.”
Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, for instance, has railed against immigrants, withdrawn from a global migration compact and vowed to impose “rigorous criteria” on those entering Brazil, a move that could shut out Venezuelans fleeing economic collapse and political repression next door.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has presided over the construction of a border barrier with Bangladesh, while Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban boasts that his walls with Serbia and Croatia succeeded in making sure his country became “neither a passageway nor refugee camp.”
“I regretfully say that when the politicians respond to anxieties about movements of peoples with these barriers, it tends not to do them too much electoral harm,” Marshall says.
Until that changes, walls will remain in vogue.
Of all the walls built since the Second World War, Marshall writes that half “sprang up between 2000 and now.”
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Do Walls Work?
“Yes, they do,” Marshall argues, but that doesn’t mean he agrees with Trump’s policies.
If the goal is to frustrate free movement and divert migrants elsewhere, he thinks walls can do the trick. He points to a border wall and security buffer separating Israel from Gaza as a prime example.
“In the five-year run-up to it being built, almost 1,000 people were blown apart by suicide bombers. Five years since it was built, I think it’s in the low dozens, maximum. So it works, it does what it was set up to do. Some of the border fences in Europe have worked, in so far as people down the breadcrumb line hear it’s no good, you can’t get in there. Now, you shift the problem somewhere else, sure, but the fence actually worked, it did what it was supposed to do.”
In other cases, especially where traditional walls meet remote and challenging terrain, their efficacy is dubious – “they’re too porous, people burrow under them, over them, round them, through them, whatever.”
But between their occasional utility and their deep psychological appeal, Marshall says border walls offer a simple policy prescription to confront the challenges of mass migration, inequality, and conflict.
“Go outside your front door and what do you see? You see fences and you see walls. And if you are really so against walls, go on knock on your neighbor’s door and say, ‘I’ve had a great idea. Let’s tear down the fence between us.’ And you’re not going to do it.”
What About Open Borders?
Not everyone is content letting ‘the wall’ win the war of ideas.
In recent years, a slate of economists, philosophers, theologians and political commentators (including on this very site) have opined that removing physical and other bureaucratic barriers between nations could provide economic stimulus to host countries and humanitarian relief to those fleeing crisis.
But those arguments lack broad popular support. A Harvard-Harris poll last year found just 21 percent of U.S. respondents preferred “basically open borders” to “secure borders.”
Marshall also says proponents of open borders overlook the negative consequences of their ideas.
“The open-borders intellectuals don’t seem to take into account that with their version of the future, we would very quickly have fascists governments right across Europe,” Marshall says, citing the emergence of the political “far-right” in Germany in recent years for the first time since World War II.
“This is a direct response to the one million refugees and economic migrants that arrived [in Germany] in 2015, and it’s happened in so many other countries.”
Marshall agrees that while open borders could help those leaving poorer countries improve their living conditions by finding opportunities in wealthy countries, it could also empty out poor societies, as the elderly and infirm are left behind with no caretakers.
To minimize that risk, Marshall proposes an alternative that could win broader support than open borders: foreign aid.
“You can do it for one or both of two reasons. One is because you’re generally altruistic and genuinely want to help people who are less well-off than you and because you think that human beings are all equal in potential. Or you can do it because you’re entirely selfish – I don’t want this movement, I want to preserve the cultural heritage of my country, and I think the best way to do it is to enrich other areas so they don’t want to come here.”
For the time being though, President Trump seems driven by neither impulse.
Under his watch, the U.S. has cut development assistance to the Latin American countries whose citizens are fueling migration flows. He’s also stopped promoting the idea of a “big, very beautiful door” in his border wall as a part of a boost to legal migration. Instead, Trump has backed cuts to America’s refugee admissions and legal immigration schemes.
Marshall says that’s become a familiar pattern across the world, as politicians sell the public on border walls as a temporary fix as they pursue broader immigration reform, and then fail to deliver.
“You reach toward what you think will be a short-term solution, but which turns into a longer-term sticking plaster, which is the fence and the wall. Then the longer-term thing of trying to plan properly, especially in the democracies, gets lost in the four or five-year election cycle, and so it goes.”
- Tim Marshall’s “The Age of Walls: How Barriers Between Nations Are Changing Our World” (2018, Simon and Schuster)