The Sunday Magazine

Why people around the world are building more walls

From the Great Wall of China to the DMZ dividing North from South Korea, more than a third of the world's nation-states have barriers on their borders. And against the backdrop of an international migrant crisis and growing ethnic nationalism, more walls are being built.
A man holds on to the border wall along the beach in Tijuana, Mexico earlier this year. (Gregory Bull/Associated Press)

In 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan exhorted Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall." Two years later, the Berlin Wall, perhaps the most hated wall in history, was dismantled by euphoric Germans.

Over the following 15 years or so, it seemed like walls would keep coming down. Globalization, the spread of liberal democracy, free trade deals, and the internet would rid the world of the barriers that separate people. Some even mused that the nation-state could become obsolete.

Now, border walls are being erected more than ever. Where social, political, cultural and economic divides are more pronounced, physical barriers seem likely to follow.

And the most notorious would-be wall-builder today is another U.S. president — Trump. 

Tim Marshall is a former diplomatic editor at Sky News in the United Kingdom, who has reported from conflict zones around the world. He's the author of the bestselling book Prisoners of Geography, and his latest book is The Age of Walls: How Barriers Between Nations are Changing our World.

He spoke to The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright. Here is part of their conversation.

What were the great walls of the past Hadrian's Wall, or walled cities like Babylon meant to do?

Primarily defend and protect what you have. In those ages, mankind was not in a constant state of warfare, but you knew any moment someone might come over the horizon and try and get everything you've got. So you put what is precious to you inside that wall.

Walkers pass by Hadrian's Wall, near the border between Scotland and England. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

We started this when we stopped being hunter-gatherers, and that's about 8,000 years. I'm afraid we've never really stopped. What is surprising is that we are now actually in very much an age of walls, despite this era of openness and globalization.

Let's look at the Great Wall of China. What was the purpose of it?

I would argue it grew out of the division in people's minds. In fact, that's what I'd say about all the walls. If you don't have this division in your mind of us and them, you're not going to build a physical separation.

[In China], they had had incursions. At a certain point, one of the Emperors said, 'one of the ways to stop this is to build this massive wall.' But it was built because there was us and them. There were the barbarians, and there was the civilized world, which was the Han Chinese. Once you've got that physical barrier there, that reinforces that other sense of us and them.

The Great Wall of China is more than 21,000 kilometres long. The historic structure was built over centuries to ward off invasions from the north. (Andy Wong/Associated Press)

An interesting theme in the book is the wall as a symbol. You talk about Trump using the wall to define what being an American means.

Trump is not alone in this. Before we get to him, let me give you another example, because I think Trump sucks the oxygen out of the wider debate. Hungary fenced off Serbia. That's because in 2015, a lot of the refugees were washing up against the Hungarian border. So Hungary built this huge fence. All they've done — and they don't care — is divert people into other countries.

What the very nationalistic government under Viktor Orban has subsequently done is spent hundreds of millions of euros reinforcing it, getting state-of-the art search lights, radars, you name it, even though they don't actually need it anymore. But that's because they're saying to the population, 'We're doing something for you true Hungarians that have issues about these outsiders.' That is exactly, I think, what Trump is doing.

Since the start of Europe's migrant crisis in 2015, at least 1,300 kilometres of fences have been erected or are being constructed by countries like Hungary, seen here. (Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images)

Even if Trump didn't doesn't get his wall built — and I don't think he ever will — it doesn't really matter electorally, because he's the guy with the electoral base that he can say to, 'I'm trying to defend your interests.' If he doesn't get it built, he can say, 'That other lot, the Democrats … they're the ones getting in the way.'

If he did build it, it would have an effect in reduction [of immigration]. The billions that would be spent if it was built could be spent on better border checks and processing centres. But that doesn't tap into this visceral disquiet of a certain section of the American electorate the way that a "big, beautiful wall" does.

What about the walls and barriers that divide Israel and the settlements in the West Bank from Palestinians? That's far from being just a symbol. That's a huge bloody barrier, isn't it?

Yeah, and it's also one that works. I'm not making a case for or against it, but I am making a case against [the] platitude, of 'walls don't work.' They do — from the Israeli perspective. They do what they're built to do, which is primarily to stop attacks, especially suicide bombings on Israeli civilians. They've dropped dramatically since the walls went up.

Now, that's separate from the morality of them. I fully understand why Israel does what it does, and I think that it works. I mean, the Berlin Wall worked. It was a giant prison wall. But it worked.

If you stand beside the wall in Israel, it's also really formidable. You can't scale it, you can't get around it.

It's brutal. It may be brutal even more so because of the weather extremes — with the heat and the dust and then these watchtowers spaced along the wall, which are formidable and forbidding structures, and you can just make out behind the glass the guys with the guns. I mean, it's awful. I don't like the wall. I just understand it.

Do walls ever improve relations between people on the inside and people on the outside?

Probably not. The thing is that if you didn't build one, the relations might not improve, and one side might kill the other. So the wall can actually prevent them from getting to each other.

I actually think you can make a case for dividing people. I've got a book coming out about the Kosovo war. This is a country — Serbia — they've divided and divorced bloodily. But it was only when you divided the Serbs from the Kosovars that they stopped fighting.

I know you may have people shouting at the radio at this point, but I think it's a lot easier to be on the side of the angels and to know that this is the good liberal argument to make, but it's a lot more honest to recognize that the liberal arguments do not always have the answers, even if you want them to have the answers.

I'm not making a case that we should go around dividing. But … [look at] Belfast and all the peace walls that separate neighbourhoods. Most of the people living just each side of them want them to stay up, not because they like them, but because they know that if they come down now, especially now, there will probably be trouble. So they're waiting for a time when we've reached a stage where there won't be trouble, and at that point the wall can come down.

Are there any kinds of border barriers that would keep out all the desperate people trying to get away from persecution or war or famine? Do any of them work to do that?

I mean, they're all porous to an extent. But they all work, as we discussed earlier, on the psychological level, even if they don't work completely. It's something that the liberal intellect thinks, 'You've built this stupid fence and yet people are coming through it. So how stupid. Take it down,' which doesn't address the reason it went up.

You might want complete and full migration. I might want it, but that doesn't mean that I think that the majority of people around me want it, and they clearly do not. Overwhelmingly, in country after country after country, people are concerned about the mass movement of peoples, which has in no way peaked.

We're entering, if we're not already in, an era of climate refugees — Bangladesh is ground zero for all this. What effect do you think climate change will have on wall building around the world?

I suspect it's going to make them go a wee bit higher, whether it's metaphorical or real.

Already there's been movement of fairly significant movement of peoples in Bangladesh, away from the coastlines up north. Parts of Africa also are being affected by climate change. Then add on to the climate change, the fact that in Africa the population is around about 1 billion, and by 2060 it is going to be 2 billion. So it's an extra 1 billion people at a time of automation, possibly a reduction in the amount of jobs available anywhere, and a time of climate change.

Flood waters surround a house on the island of Kiribati, which sits just above sea level. As climate change causes storms to intensify, experts predict more and more climate refugees will leave their homes in search of safety. (Plan International Australia via Getty Images)

Unless we sort out this problem, then what happens back home in Europe for me is a good template. But again this is global, and this anxiety is not just about nasty rich Europeans. This is global. Ask the barriers between Brunei and Malaysia, or Malaysia and Thailand.

In Europe what we've seen is the rise of the far right, and the left, and this growing division, and the shrinking of the centre ground. A lot of this is to do with globalisation and the mass movement of peoples. If that's going to continue, why would the growth of the extreme political parties not also continue?

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.