Skip to main content

Palestinians cross the border wall between Egypt and the Rafah Refugee Camp, in the southern Gaza Strip, Wednesday Sept. 14, 2005.PIER PAOLO CITO

Tim Marshall is the author of several books, including The Age of Walls: How Barriers Between Nations Are Changing Our World, which will be published in October and from which this essay is adapted.

The border wall between Israel and the West Bank is among the most forbidding and hostile in the world. Viewed from up close, whichever side you find yourself on, it rears up from the ground, overwhelming and dominating you. Faced by this blank expanse of steel and concrete, you are dwarfed not only by its size but by what it represents. You are on one side; “they” are on the other.

Thirty years ago, a wall came down, ushering in what looked like a new era of openness and internationalism. In 1987, president Ronald Reagan went to the Brandenburg Gate in divided Berlin and called out to his opposite number in the Soviet Union, “Mr. Gorbachev – tear down this wall!” Two years later, it fell. Berlin, Germany and then Europe were united once more. In those heady times, some intellectuals predicted an end of history. However, history does not end.

In recent years, the cry “Tear down this wall” is losing the argument against “fortress mentality.” It is struggling to be heard, unable to compete with the frightening heights of mass migration, the backlash against globalization, the resurgence of nationalism, the collapse of communism, and the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath. These are the fault lines that will shape our world for years to come.

Many of us travel during the summer. It’s an opportunity to broaden the mind, experience new cultures – and discover just how many countries are busy walling themselves off from the outside world. (You won’t see this highlighted by the various tourism departments.) Israel’s fencing-off the West Bank, Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexico-United States border, as well as the outrage over the separation of undocumented migrants from their children are garnering all the headlines, including earlier this week, when Mr. Trump tweeted that he “would be willing to ‘shut down’ government if the Democrats do not give us the votes for Border Security, which includes the Wall!” – but wall-building is a worldwide phenomenon in which the cement has been mixed and the concrete laid without most of us even noticing.

We are seeing walls being built along borders everywhere. Despite globalization and advances in technology, we seem to be feeling more divided than ever. Thousands of miles of walls and fences have gone up around the world in the 21st century. At least 65 countries, more than a third of the world’s nation-states, have built barriers along their borders; half of those erected since the Second World War sprang up between 2000 and now. Within a few years, the European nations could have more miles of walls, fences and barriers on their borders than there were at the height of the Cold War. They began by separating Greece and Macedonia, Macedonia and Serbia, and Serbia and Hungary, and as we became less shocked by each stretch of barbed wire, others followed suit – Slovenia began building on the Croatian border, the Austrians fenced off Slovenia, and Sweden put up barriers to prevent illegal immigrants crossing from Denmark, while Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have all started on defensive fortifications on their borders with Russia.

In most of these cases, the force driving the walls even higher is the mass movement of peoples, especially from the developing world, which in turn is changing voting patterns. The media narrative in Europe is that the continent’s electorates are stemming the rise of political extremes; this is both wrong and complacent. In last year’s French presidential election, Emmanuel Macron did indeed roundly beat Marine Le Pen of the National Rally. But Ms. Le Pen won 34 per cent of the vote – doubling what her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, achieved in the 2002 election. That is not holding back the tide. Nor is the entry of the AfD (Alternative for Germany) into the German Bundestag last fall, the landslide victory for the Victor Orban in Hungary this past spring, or the recent election in Italy, which brought to power a coalition government between the Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord, which is unabashedly anti-immigrant, and has been turning migrant ships away from the country’s shores.

Europe is certainly not alone in fortifying its borders. The UAE has built a fence along its border with Oman, Kuwait likewise with Iraq. Iraq and Iran maintain a physical divide, as do Iran and Pakistan – all 435 miles of it. In Central Asia, Uzbekistan, despite being landlocked, has closed itself off from its five neighbors, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. The border with Tajikistan is even mined. And on the story goes, through the barriers separating Brunei and Malaysia, Malaysia and Thailand, Pakistan and India, India and Bangladesh, China and North Korea, North and South Korea, and so on around the world.

We erect walls for many reasons because we are divided in many ways – in wealth, race, religion and politics. Sometimes, divisions lead to violence, and walls are erected to protect or defend. Sometimes, walls go up to keep certain people out. Sometimes, physical walls don’t go up at all, but we still feel the separation; it’s in our minds. These invisible barriers are often just as effective.

These walls tell us much about international politics, but the anxieties they represent transcend the nation-state boundaries on which they sit. The primary purpose of the walls appearing throughout Europe is to stop the wave of migrants – but they also say much about wider divisions and instability in the structure of the European Union and within its member nations. President Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is intended to stem the flow of migrants from the south, but it also taps into a wider fear many of its supporters feel about changing demographics.

Division shapes politics at every level – the personal, local, national and international. It’s essential to be aware of what has divided us, and what continues to do so, in order to understand what’s going on in the world today.

Workers put pieces of broken glass on the top of a wall to prevent East Berliners from escaping on Aug. 22, 1961.KREUSCH


Picture the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, in the sequence titled “The Dawn of Man.” On the African savanna in the prehistoric era, a small tribe of proto-man/apes are drinking peacefully at a watering hole when another tribe turns up. The individuals are quite happy to share with their own group – but not with this new “other” tribe. A shrieking match ensues in which the new group succeeds in taking over the watering hole, forcing the others to retreat. At this point, if the newcomers had had the nous to make a few bricks and mix some cement, they could have walled off their new possession and guarded it. But given that this is set a few million years ago, they have to fight it out again when the first tribe returns some days later, having boned up on warfare, to reclaim its territory.

Grouping into tribes, feeling alarmed by a lot of outsiders, or responding to perceived threats are very human things to do. We form ties that are important for survival, but also for social cohesion. We develop a group identity, and this often leads to conflict with others. Our groups are competing for resources, but with an element of identity conflict also – a narrative of “us and them.”

In the early history of mankind, we were hunter-gatherers: we had not settled or acquired permanent fixed resources that others might covet. Then, in parts of what we now call Turkey and the Middle East, humans started farming. Instead of roaming far and wide to find food or graze livestock, they plowed the fields and waited for the results. Suddenly (in the context of evolution), more and more of us needed to build barriers: walls and roofs to house ourselves and our livestock, fences to mark our territory, fortresses to retreat to if the territory was overrun, and guards to protect the new system. The Age of Walls was upon us and has long gripped our imagination ever since. We still tell each other tales of the walls of Troy, Jericho, Babylon, Great Zimbabwe, Constantinople, and of the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, the Inca Walls in Peru and many others. On and on they stretch, through time, region and culture, to the present – but now they are electrified, topped with searchlights and CCTV.

These physical divisions are mirrored by those in the mind – the great ideas that have guided our civilizations and given us identity and a sense of belonging – such as the Great Schism of Christianity, the split of Islam into Sunni and Shia, and in more recent history the titanic battles between communism, fascism and democracy.

The title of Thomas Friedman’s 2005 book, The World Is Flat, was based on the belief that globalization would inevitably bring us closer together. It has done that, but it has also inspired us to build barriers. When faced with perceived threats – the financial crisis, terrorism, violent conflict, refugees and immigration, the increasing gap between rich and poor – people cling more tightly to their groups. The co-founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, believed social media would unite us. In some respects it has, but it has simultaneously given voice and organizational ability to new cybertribes, some of whom spend their time spewing invective and division across the world wide web. There seem now to be as many tribes, and as much conflict between them, as there has ever been. The question we face today is, What form do our modern tribes take? Do we define ourselves by class, by race, by religion, by nationality? And is it possible for these tribes to co-exist in a world where the concept of “us and them” remains?

It all comes down to this “us and them” concept and the walls we build in our minds. Sometimes the “other” has a different language or skin colour; a different religion or other set of beliefs. One example of this came up recently when I was in London with a group of 30 leading young journalists from around the world whom I was helping to train. I’d mentioned the Iran-Iraq war, in which up to one million Iranians had died, and had used the possibly clumsy phrase “Muslims killing Muslims.” A young Egyptian journalist jumped from his chair and shouted that he could not allow me to say this. I pointed out the statistics from that terrible war and he replied, “Yes, but the Iranians are not Muslims.”

The penny dropped, along with my heart. The majority of Iranians are Shia, so I asked him, “Are you saying that the Shia are not Muslims?”

“Yes. The Shia are not Muslims.”

Such divisions do not come down to competition for resources, but rather to a claim that what you think is the only truth, and those with differing views are lesser people. With such certainty of superiority, the walls quickly go up. If you introduce competition for resources, they go up higher. We seem to be in that place now.

In China, we see a strong nation-state with a number of divisions within its borders – such as regional unrest and wealth disparity – that pose a risk to national unity, threatening economic progress and power; thus the government must exert control over the Chinese people. The United States is also divided, for different reasons: the era of Mr. Trump has exacerbated race relations in the Land of the Free, but has also revealed a hitherto unrivalled split between Republicans and Democrats, who are more opposed than ever before.

The divisions between Israel and Palestine are well established, but with so many further subdivisions within each population it is almost impossible to try to agree upon a solution. Religious and ethnic divisions also spark violence across the Middle East, highlighting the key struggle between Shia and Sunni Muslims – each incident is the result of complex factors, but much of it comes down to religion, especially the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the Indian subcontinent, population movements, now and in the coming years, reveal the plight of those fleeing religious persecution as well as that of the many economic and climate refugees.

In Africa, the borders left behind by colonialism are proving difficult to reconcile with tribal identities that remain strong. Across Europe the very concept of the EU is under threat as the walls go back up, proving that the differences of the Cold War years haven’t entirely been resolved, and that nationalism that has never gone away in the age of internationalism. And as Britain leaves the EU, Brexit reveals divisions throughout the kingdom – long-established regional identities, as well as the more recent social and religious tensions that have formed in the era of globalization.

In a time of fear and instability, people will continue to group together, to protect themselves against perceived threats. Those threats don’t just come from the borders. They can also come from within.

Copyright © 2018 by Tim Marshall. From the forthcoming book The Age of Walls: How Barriers Between Nations Are Changing Our World, by Tim Marshall, to be published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.