THE FALL of the Berlin Wall proved to be one of history’s great misdirections. The world that emerged after the Cold War turned out to be one of fortified walls rather than open borders. And the latest example of the breaching of a wall led to the biggest mass murder of Jews since the Holocaust. “Tear down this wall” may have had a wonderful resonance at a particular place and time. But much to the dismay of globalization’s most ardent champions, “put up this wall and make it impregnable” may well be the way of the future.
Elizabeth Vallet, of the University of Quebec, calculates that the world has 74 border walls, six times the number at the end of the Cold War, extending for more than 20,000 miles. The most sophisticated wall is probably Saudi Arabia’s 560-mile wall on its border with Iraq, along with a similar border fence with Yemen. Another world-class wall is Pakistan’s 2,000-mile wall with India, consisting of a dual chain link fence and barbed wire, reinforced by a 400-mile-long ditch, 14 feet wide and 11 feet deep and 1,000 forts and border posts. Unlike the Great Wall of China, the Great Wall of Pakistan is visible from space thanks to permanent floodlights. Compared with these two goliaths, Israel’s “iron wall” with Gaza is both short and unsophisticated.
In his new book, The Guarded Age: Fortification in the Twenty-First Century, David Betz, a professor at King’s College, London, points out that walls are only part of a mass of fortifications rising across the planet. Some are straight out of sci-fi: Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system is a wall in the sky made of radar beams and interceptor missiles. Some are medieval. The new US Embassy in South London is a postmodern motte and bailey: The 200-foot glass cube is raised up on a hill, set back from the nearest street by more than 100 feet, and protected by a “pond” and a network of hidden ditches.
Some fortifications are ballyhooed: Donald Trump did more crowing than building on the southern border. Others proceed by stealth: Turkey has constructed a 475-mile concrete wall along its border with Syria and Xi Jinping has built a new “Southern” Great Wall as part of his “Covid mitigation” strategy. Some fortifications are deliberately visible: Look at the razor wire that surrounds many public buildings (or private houses in countries such as South Africa). Many are concealed. Major cities are littered with concrete benches and reinforced bollards designed for “hostile vehicle mitigation.”
The fortification of the world is driven by more than national hostilities. Three other forces are at work.
Border fortifications are designed to keep out illegal immigrants as well as foreign foes. Trump might have proclaimed his love of walls to anyone who will listen, but many of the most successful wall-builders signal left while driving right. The US is currently building a 20-mile border fence in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley despite Joe Biden’s declared hostility to Trump’s wall.
The ever-present threat of terrorist attacks is raising up fortifications into the heart of big cities. Urban fortifications are unobtrusive but pervasive: unobtrusive to prevent cities from seeming like war zones, but pervasive enough to deal with the possibility that anybody might turn out to be a terrorist, and ordinary objects, from cars to backpacks, might turn into weapons.
The other thing injecting fortification into everyday life is fear of disorder. Some 17 million Americans live in gated communities. The emerging world is splitting into a world of slums and a world of walled cities: Dainfern, a suburb of Johannesburg, sits behind a 13-foot-high wall topped with an electric fence and equipped with steel rods to detect tunneling and seismic sensors to pick up anybody penetrating the perimeter. The brochures call it a “security village.”
Fortification is big business. One 2021 report calculated that the “global perimeter security market” is worth $59 billion. The US Embassy in London — the castle of Nine Elms — cost more than $1.5 billion. It is also innovative. The UK hard landscaping firm Marshalls produces shallow-mount bollards that can be planted in cities where you can’t dig very deep because of the density of underground utilities but which can nevertheless withstand significant impact. Architectural Armour, another UK company, provides “architecturally sensitive” reinforced glass, panic rooms, garden furniture. Gladiator Solutions, a US firm, specializes in reinforcing schools and their interiors to cope with armed attacks, part of a burgeoning sector that feeds on the fears of American parents and community leaders.
The fortification business is also unusual in that it gets many of its best ideas from the distant past. Several fortifications in Mali are constructed on the “star fortress” pattern first developed by 17th century military engineer Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban. One of the most versatile “fortification products” is HESCO Bastion, made by a British firm in Bradford, which consists of hinged wire mesh containers, similar to the sort used in medieval times, that can be filled with stone and earth and then assembled into do-it-yourself fortifications: Lego meets IKEA meets the Dark Ages.
Even before the Hamas atrocities on Oct. 7, the fortification business was set to boom thanks to the combination of pressure from illegal immigrants and deteriorating security in emerging countries. In that respect, Oct. 7 will act as another Sept. 11. Not only will the Israelis improve the fortifications which proved to be insufficient against Hamas, but other countries, shaken by mass protests and rising terror threats, will dig in as well.
Which raises some obvious questions: Is this emphasis on wall-building wise? Should the Israelis give in to their instinct to respond to the breach of a wall with better walls? And should other governments follow suit? Or should we perhaps change course before the world becomes fully medieval?
Two very different groups object to the wallification trend: the idealist and the realist. The idealists argue that the way to defuse discontent is to build bridges rather than walls. The realists argue that Hamas’ incursion demonstrates that walls don’t work very well, creating a false sense of security, distracting attention from better use of resources and freezing conflicts in place. Hamas fighters knocked down the Gaza fence with bulldozers, then drove through the gaps, or sailed over it in gliders, or went round it in boats. The favorite example of the realists is the Maginot Line, which absorbed 6% of France’s military budget from 1930 to 1937 but did nothing to stop the German offensive in 1940. The Germans attacked through the sparsely defended Ardennes forest instead.
The idealist argument need hardly detain us in the age of Hamas. Many of the people who are most vociferous in their opposition to walls in theory end up building them in practice: Witness the Europeans, who have been building walls to control the flow of migrants, particularly since the migration surge of 2016, or the pope, who lives in Vatican City surrounded by what Trump called “the biggest wall of them all.” Moreover, there is no contradiction between building walls and building bridges: People are more inclined to engage in generous negotiations if they feel safe.
The realist argument is more serious. The realists are right to point out that you shouldn’t rely purely on a wall: You need to link walls with other strategies, from diplomacy to defensive strikes. But the logic of the realist position can point equally well to building better walls and staffing them better. One cause of the tragedy on Oct. 7 was that the wall was minimally staffed, in part because Israel had fallen into the habit of relying on high-tech gadgets rather than human guards. Walls perform too many functions at once to think of abandoning them rather than supplementing them: They are not only defensive barriers against hostile forces or illegal immigrants but also secure bases for offensive operations.
The dream of a borderless world was always an impossible one. The more mobile the world becomes, the more we need to build safeguards to make sure people are not abusing that mobility. The great challenge of our time is not to get rid of walls. It is how best to mix walls with bridges so that we can maximize the upside of globalization while always being on guard against the downside.