A World of Walls

Donald Trump’s proposal for the U.S.-Mexico border isn’t outdated. It’s a sign of the times.

The U.S.-Mexico border fence, near Naco, Arizona (Samantha Sais / Reuters)

In recent days, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have criticized Donald Trump as hopelessly old-fashioned. During a rally in New Jersey on Friday, the former U.S. president argued that his wife has a better understanding of today’s interconnected world than her Republican opponent in the 2016 election. The proof was Trump’s plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent illegal immigration and terrorism.

“The last terrorist incident we had in America was in San Bernardino,” California, Clinton told the crowd. “Those people were converted [to radical Islam] over social media. … You can build a wall across our border with Canada as well. Create giant sea walls along the Atlantic and the Pacific. … We can send the whole U.S. Navy to the Gulf Coast and keep anybody from getting in there. We could use every airplane the U.S. Air Force has got in the air to stop planes from landing. You still couldn’t keep out the social media.”

On Sunday, also in New Jersey, the current U.S. president got in on the action. “The world is more interconnected than ever before, and it’s becoming more connected every day,” Obama said. “Building walls won’t change that. … [I]f the past two decades have taught us anything, it’s that the biggest challenges we face cannot be solved in isolation.”

Clinton is suggesting that walls are useless against today’s borderless threats. Obama is suggesting that the world is marching toward ever-more interconnectedness, trampling the walls in its way. Both seem to present walls as a thing of the past. In fact, though, border walls and fences are currently going up around the world at the fastest rate since the Cold War.

This is one piece of evidence cited in a new book on the consequences of connectedness. In The Seventh Sense, Joshua Cooper Ramo argues that in the modern era, the world is in many ways organized into networks that “emerge when nodes—which can be composed of people, financial markets, computers, mobile devices, drones, or any lively and connectable object—link to other nodes.” And the central debate of the networked age—a debate that’s far from settled, despite the confident declarations of Clinton and Obama—is the degree to which these connected systems should be open or closed.

“There are certain reasons networks want to be closed, which have to do with their efficiency,” Ramo told me. “If they’re totally open they become so inefficient that they stop growing. … The essential locus of control in any network system is the role of the gatekeeper.”

Ramo, a former journalist and the co-CEO and vice chairman of the consulting firm Kissinger Associates, applies network theory to international affairs. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War helped usher in unfettered globalization, he argues, but now a backlash is underway. Globalization has gradually produced a desire in certain parts of the world for separation—particularly after a series of traumas, including the 9/11 attacks and the global financial crisis, exposed the hazards of freewheeling integration. And separation is increasingly being achieved through physical barriers.

The statistic Ramo cites about the spread of walls comes from a study by the political scientists Ron Hassner and Jason Wittenberg: Of the 51 fortified boundaries built between countries since the end of World War II, around half were constructed between 2000 and 2014. Hassner and Wittenberg found that such boundaries—structures like the existing U.S.-Mexico border fence, the Israel-West Bank barrier, and the Saudi Arabia-Yemen border fence—tend to be constructed by wealthy countries seeking to keep out the citizens of poorer countries, and that many of these fortifications have been built between states in the Muslim world.

Number of Separation Barriers Initiated Around the World, 19452014

“The walls, fences, and trenches of the modern world seem to be getting longer, more ambitious, and better defended with each passing year,” Ramo writes. “The creation of gates is … the corollary of connection.”

Recently, many of those fences have been appearing in Europe, as countries there struggle to process an influx of migrants and refugees. (The chart above doesn’t account for all of these new barriers, a number of which have been constructed since 2014.) The Economist observed in January that, as a result of the refugee crisis and the conflict in Ukraine, “Europe will soon have more physical barriers on its national borders than it did during the Cold War.” New border controls and barriers, including Austria’s proposed fence along the border with Italy, are threatening the viability of the European Union’s passport-free Schengen zone. Here’s what the situation looked like as of early March:

Border Controls in Europe
* Fences do not cover entire border (Reuters / European Commission)

Hassner and Wittenberg theorize that the recent proliferation of wall-like structures is in part a function of countries copying one another. “States seem to be learning fortified boundary ‘technology’ from nearby states and from regional powers that they perceive as having implemented the technology successfully,” they write. And as more countries do this—especially major powers like the United States and European Union—it becomes more acceptable to use physical barriers for national defense: “For this practice to spread [further], it would have to tip the balance against the prior enthusiasm for globalization and permeable borders that has characterized the post–Cold War world and the stigma attached to barriers as symbols of oppression, such as the Berlin Wall.”

And yet, the evidence on whether these walls and fences achieve their goals—which these days often involve deterring immigration, terrorism, and smuggling—is mixed, especially when you factor in the expense and unintended consequences associated with the barriers. Hassner and Wittenberg, for their part, discovered that walls work best when they’re just one part of a broader strategy to control the border and when there aren’t alternate routes into the country constructing the wall.

What will ultimately result from this period of flux, Ramo believes, is “a new era of globalization that will mostly be defined by the creation of these gatekept systems.” The open question, in his mind, is what those gates will look like. With networks, “things can be either open, fast, or secure. ... If you want a really open, really fast system, it’s not going to be secure because that means you’re just letting anybody in. I think what we’re seeing now is everybody’s trying to figure out how do you balance those parameters.”

“Talking about walls or no walls is not the right discussion,” Ramo added. He would rather the discussion be about how gatekeeping should work, including questions like “what kind of immigration do we want to encourage and how do we want to structure that process.”

One of the reasons these trends are important is that they reframe the 2016 election from a contest between the past and the future, as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama imply, to one between two plausible futures. Ramo might call it a divide over the relative wisdom of more open versus more closed networks. Trump has staked his campaign on walls and trade barriers; Hillary Clinton has called for tearing down barriers. And this consequential debate is occurring in the country with more immigrants than any other nation in the world, among candidates for its highest office.

Click here to explore Pew’s map (Pew Research Center)

The past two decades have indeed taught us something about interconnectedness, as Obama suggested on Sunday. But it may not be what the president has in mind.

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