30 October 2018

Epidemia of Walls in an (Un)free World

In the latest issue of Global Challenges, Graduate Institute scholars and researchers analyse why nations around the world have recently started to barricade themselves behind new walls.

The rationale of this new issue was born out of a baffling paradox: whereas the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War had been foreshadowing a peaceful and borderless world, the number of walls has been rising at a steady pace ever since. In direct contradiction to the liberal ethos of openness, a series of nations have reverted to immuring themselves – particularly so after 11 September 2001 – in a context of growing insecurity, intensifying migratory flows and populist animosity.

Prolific wall-builders can be found in the four corners of the world. Saudi Arabia has built fences on its borders with Yemen and the United Arab Emirates and is working on a 900-kilometre-long barrier with Iraq. Uzbekistan and Turkey have immured themselves almost completely. Israel has built a wall with the West Bank and both Israel and Egypt have reinforced their borders with Gaza. Building a “big and beautiful” wall on the Mexican border has been a key component of Trump’s electoral campaign.

In Europe, the collapse of Libya and Syria has prompted a surge in wall-building, from the Spanish ports of Melilla and Ceuta to the various fences built by Hungary on its Serbian, Slovenian and Croatian borders and those set up by Greece and Bulgaria on the Turkish border. Even Norway has started to build a steel fence along its Arctic border with Russia, not to mention the British’s own “Great Wall of Calais”.

While the world counted 16 walls at the beginning of the 21st century, today there are 53 walls totalling 40,000 kilometres in length, as shown in this map:

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The potential reasons behind this flare of new walls are many. First of all, walls reflect a general sentiment of (perceived) insecurity and anxiety, and a concomitant loss of faith in a multicultural world. Walls, indeed, offer mental comfort. They reassure. Walls are thus, in many ways, the physical manifestation of the current backlash against globalisation and the attendant success of illiberal worldviews, as discussed by Professor Sylvan in this interview:

The dossier begins with a state-of-the-art presentation by Dominic Eggel of the concept of walls in “Whither Cosmopolis: Yearning for Closure in Times of Uncertainty”, complemented with a map, definitions and a timeline. Read article >

Seven articles follow, offering a better understanding and fresh perspectives on a series of walls and fences – new and old – between states:

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A Contagious Craze for Walls
History shows that countries, cities and communities have always sought to shield themselves from the Other. However, for Professor Jean-François Bayart the contemporary craze for walls, rooted in the desire to partition people and work and to globalise everything else, is also breaking apart societies from within, giving rise to unprecedented dangers. Read article >

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The “Great Wall” of America: Historical Opportunities
US President Trump’s wall project has outraged Mexican public opinion, and yet man-made barriers between Mexico and the United States have existed long before he came into power. Samuel Segura Cobos sees in the wall – certainly the product of Western liberalism – an opportunity for both countries to re-examine their relation as a more diverse world order emerges. Read article >

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Between Security and Apartheid: Cinematic Representations of the West Bank Wall
The West Bank Wall has become dramatically popular in most Palestinian and some Israeli films. It is now an object of study and a way to understand the different perceptions of the conflict, as explained by Ricardo Bocco. Read article >

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Battle of Identities at the India-Bangladesh Border
The influx of Bangladeshi migrants in the Indian north-eastern state of Assam led to major ethnic backlash in the late 1970s, followed by India’s construction of fences along its border with Bangladesh. Anuradha Sen Mookerjee underlines the politisation of the border for electoral and governmental purposes. Read article >

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Turkey and the Middle-East: From Imperial Temptation to National Closure
In the early 2010s, Turkey launched a “Neo-Ottoman” diplomacy which, capitalising on the Arab Spring, was to restore Turkey’s status as a leader in the Middle East. For Özcan Yilmaz, the recent 764-kilometre-long wall along the Syrian border symbolises the regional rivalries and questions of identity that have put paid to Neo-Ottomanism. Read article >

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Combating Terrorism on the Somalian Border: The Improbable Kenyan Dream
In 2015, Kenya announced the construction of a 700-kilometre-long wall along its border with Somalia. Under the pretext of fighting the Shabaab, it aimed to stop the flow of Somali refugees. Today, only 8 kilometres have been built. Marc Galvin explores the history and reasons – official and non-official – behind this gap between dream and reality. Read article >

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Korea: Comfortable Wall, Uncomfortable Peace
In 1953 the Korean Demilitarised Zone was established. Its defensive architecture has led to the gradual construction of a collective “us versus them” narrative, deeply engraved into public perception. In April 2018, however, Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in stepped over the demarcation line hand in hand to sign a peace declaration. For Emilia S. Heo, both North and South Koreans are faced today with new information, new stories and a new reality that will reshape their visions of the DMZ and how to transcend it. Read article >

Global Challenges is a series of research dossiers designed to share with a broader, non-specialist audience the ideas, knowledge, opinions and debates produced at the Graduate Institute, Geneva.

By the Research Office.