Tim Marshall is a British journalist recognized for his analyses of foreign policy and international diplomacy. He is best known for his “Politics of Place” series. “The Age of Walls: How Barriers Between Nations are Changing our World” is the third book in that acclaimed series. It is certainly relevant to the current state of domestic and international affairs given the continuing problems brought about in recent years by mass migration to Western Europe and America.
Marshall’s premise is this: walls are going up. Nationalism and identity politics are on the rise once again, much to the world’s detriment. Thousands of miles of fences and barriers have been erected in the past 10 years, and they are redefining our political landscape. More than 60 countries now have border walls, and more than half of those erected since World War II were built since the year 2000; more miles of fences and barriers have been erected in Europe than existed along the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
In this geographical and geopolitical study, Marshall devotes chapters to China, the United States, Israel and Palestine, the Middle East, India, Africa, Europe and the United Kingdom. In doing so he provides a worldwide perspective on walls and barriers, beginning with China’s Great Wall, but more importantly describing the digital firewall that China has erected to prevent it citizens free and uncensored access to digital information. He also describes the barrier India’s caste system serves to limit upward movement and equality for millions of Indians.
The remaining chapters are devoted to the brick and mortar and wire barriers that nations have erected, which he believes have a deep psychological appeal but offer only simplistic policy solutions to the serious problems of mass migration, inequality and conflict. At worst, he believes these barriers threaten liberal democracy.
He reports that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has presided over the construction of a border barrier with Bangladesh, while Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban ordered construction of barbed wire barriers with Serbia and Croatia to make sure his country became “neither a passageway nor a refugee camp.”
Marshall is especially effective in describing border conflicts that readers are less likely to know about, including India-Bangladesh, where the bloody history of East Pakistan still resonates; the “wall of sand, shame and silence” in Morocco and the western Sahara demarcating the tribal and linguistic boundaries in North Africa; the dispute between Cameroon and Nigeria over the oil-rich Bakassi peninsula; and even Welsh and Cornish separatist movements.
Marshall offers a very balanced view on the hopeless cauldron of identity and religion in Israel, Palestine and the broader Middle East. He observes that liberal democracies do not exist in that region of the world, except Israel, and that governments in the Middle East have consistently used the Palestinians as political tools, discriminating against the refugees they host and ensuring that they remain in squalid camps. He also astutely recognizes that the convulsions of the Arab world over the last few years are proof that the region cannot solve the intractable problem of the Israel-Palestine conflict when very few of the governments in the region are stable.
However, Marshall’s distrust of walls and barriers and those who build them is troubling. He argues that the West is morally obliged to demolish the barriers dividing “us” from “them.” He provides plenty of criticism for President Trump and those favoring Brexit for creating divisions that are harmful to the global order.
Only grudgingly does he acknowledge the protective function of walls and barriers, and many will take great exception to his statement that the only reason many Americans support a border wall with Mexico is because they fear the demographic changes that threaten the white population. How about a fear that the rule of law and our nation’s sovereignty are being undermined, or that national security and fiscal realities are also of great concern to many?
Marshall unfairly impugns the motives of those who support and build walls and barriers. Every country is entitled to determine who may and may not enter its borders; every nation has deployed immigration policy to preserve its culture, values and unique national character. And some have to resort to walls and barriers to accomplish the things that a sovereign nation must do to ensure the integrity of its borders.
Marshall writes that open borders advocates insist that removing physical and other barriers between nations could provide economic stimulus to host countries and humanitarian relief to those fleeing crisis. But those arguments lack broad popular support in America and Europe. 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 fascist governments right across Europe,” he says, reflexively maligning the growing electoral strength of “right-wing” political parties with the ghosts of Europe’s past.
He proposes an alternative that could win broader support than open borders: foreign aid. He writes, “You can do it for one or both of two reasons. One is because you’re altruistic and desire to help people who are less well off than you. 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.”
Either way, a never-ending increase in foreign aid is not the answer, since in these dysfunctional countries the money will line the pockets of corrupt government officials, their relatives and their cronies.
Marshall cites the dismantling of the Berlin Wall as a great moment in history, and he is correct. Just after it was erected, I lived within the confines of the wall for four years as a young boy while my father was stationed in West Berlin with the U.S. Army in the early 1960s. The symbolism of the Berlin Wall being dismantled was one of history’s great moments — the dismantling of not only a wall but a bankrupt political ideology as well. Walls go up and walls come down for a variety of reasons — some remain necessary and effective despite what the author implies.
Marshall does an exceptional job of describing conditions today, and the book is certainly worth reading for the general education the reader will receive about an unstable world that compels governments to protect its citizens or preserve its national culture by erecting walls and barriers.
Bob Funk is a retired U.S. Marine and a retired high school principal.