Full Circle of the Wall Effect

L’Association des Jeunes Internationalistes publishes an article written by Dusan Bozalka, current masters student in International Relations at Université Paris II Panthéon-Assas and Université Paris-Sorbonne. 

Throughout history, walls have always played a fascinating role in the realm of politics and international relations. They were traditionally erected to protect a particular group of people or defend a stretch of land while constituting a tangible border. History provides a plethora of examples dating back to the Great Wall of China (2038 BCE) and Hadrian’s Wall (3rd century BCE) along with more modern instances such as the Berlin Wall (1961) and the Mexico-United States barrier (early 1990s). However, in almost all cases, their effectiveness has been questioned on many levels as all four examples have failed to fulfil their duties. Much like during the Cold War or the time of Hadrian’s Wall, a feeling of community was developed by separating the east from the west and the pale from beyond the pale. Moreover, in a day and age where states and borders are considered to be second-zone actors with little to say in terms of global politics, which are now dominated by “impersonal forces of world markets” (Strange), walls remain one of the few decisions taken independently by governments and resulting from internal politics to institute clear sovereign authority (Jones). This essay will shed light on the notion of border walls in international relations as a symbol of reconquered sovereignty and its effects on the two groups it separates in the process.

The notion of border walls differs depending on the political opinions and ideology of the speaker: a border wall might be referred to as ‘security, separation apartheid or anti-terror walls, obstacles, partitions, fences, barriers, barricades or borders” (Sivan). Those differences are best embodied in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The former considers it to be a ‘security banner against terrorism’, whereas Palestinians regard it as a racial ‘segregation wall’. Both a banner and a wall must protect a group from another treat-inducing one. There are three main reasons which can explain why border walls have been used over the last decades. Firstly, they are considered to be a good alternative to a costly and blood-shedding war. As former US President Kennedy put it ‘a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war’. By separating two enemy camps, they at least dam the main front line that could be used during a violent face-to-face conflict between two armies. Secondly, they might originate from economic inequalities between two countries. As drug trafficking has proliferated and low incomes motivate some Mexicans to immigrate, the Mexico-United States barrier intends to protect the latter from both phenomena stemming from the former. Thirdly, walls display a strong political message which is then historically associated with the incumbent administration in the hope of receiving more publicity. After many days of shutdown, it is now clear that Donald Trump’s motivation behind his wall is to please his electorate as a way to be either re-elected or go down in history as a reliable politician. On the one hand, walls have shown great effectiveness in pacifying conflicts. On the other hand, they are not proven to be successful in stopping the free movement of immigration, as shown by the Berlin Wall or US-Mexican border. This does not seem to prevent governments from building walls as they have made a comeback following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Indeed, adding to the pre-existing 20, of the walls completed between 1945 and 2001, 28 of them were constructed after the September 11 attacks.

Number of walls built between 1945 and 2010. Data compiled by Vallet and David

This comeback is largely due to the role of state-presenting borders as a securitization issue. According to Ole Waever, who first coined the term, a strong politicization subject enables states to turn these into security matters (Waever). The 9/11 attacks have contributed to elevating border control as one of the most important national priorities. States have understood that even individual actors can pose a threat to the world order. Insofar, increasing anxieties regarding the loss of control over their borders have pushed them to consider going for a harder border under the form of a wall. This reinforces the idea that such constructions are hermetically sealed, thus creating a hard and strong border (Reece). However, a wall is a sort of interface punctuated by various apertures, allowing to sort out who’s crossing will be authorized. Even the Berlin Wall had checkpoints, allowing authorized individuals to get in and out of West Berlin. Today, neorealists would see in this phenomenon the resurgence of the billiard balls state. Indeed, no matter how high economic or political costs can end up being, states will always be rational in trying to gain control back over their territory. It is often when states feel threatened that they decide to take controversial decisions. After close examination and having proceeded to a so-called cost/benefit equation, state actors might find themselves in favor of a hard border wall. Nevertheless, such border walls can be seen as a cry for help from states which have lost all forms of power and sovereignty over who gets in and out of their territories. Moreover, this will not shield them from the effects of globalization. Border walls might have small effects on immigration, but they will only cast an illusion of regained sovereignty. It is not because investors and bankers will have to go through a checkpoint prior to entering a country that a state actor will recuperate its long-lost independence over its economy: walls do not stop money flows. Moreover, the effects of globalization actually benefit most developed countries. In the case of the Mexico-United States barrier, the American economy actually greatly relies on its illegal workers from Mexico (Goolsbee). Companies usually hire them for a lower salary which allows them to make more profit, which, in terms, could be reinvested to expand said companies.

One might then ask: what rational factor does counterbalance all these drawbacks? Going beyond the simple question as to whether or not such practices are effective in protecting or defending people or land, one has to admit that the psychological effects resulting from walls have been successful in establishing a sense of dichotomy. This ‘hard’ border establishes two distinct entities: the ones ‘walled in’ as opposed to the ones ‘walled out’ (David and Vallet). Such walls aim to represent a clear separation enabling some anxious parts of a population to feel protected from international threats. The effects of these constructions on people find themselves on a rather moral level. People, including government officials, project their own insecurities regarding the future and the loss of sovereignty the state they live in has experienced. Feeling threatened by a group that could potentially hurt them in whatever form (financially or physically), they might back their states into building a border wall or even be the impulse of such decision. Once again, walls cast a reassuring shadow over the people it protects. However, at the same time, it creates a sense of ‘being different and threatened’ that is, along with the effects of the aforementioned strong politicization, responsible for inducing racism and xenophobia. As a result, politics are trapped in a vicious circle where each negatively perceived incident related to the ostracized group is turned into an even greater sense of threat, which leads to more politicization and racism. This ultimately leads to the necessity of building a bigger, greater wall, often at the expense of both taxpayers and migrants.

Walls, borders, fences, or other terms that define these physical barriers are a great way to calm the masses. They represent a clear and physical symbol of the desire for protection and separation, proving that one community or group does not identify with the other. People can only understand what they see. This has never been truer, especially in the case of such constructions. They suggest governments are in control of everything and able to shield their citizens from the effects of globalization and immigration. However, in their quest to regain sovereignty, states actually send the opposite signal: a signal of weakness. States are now so unable to control the evolution of different issues that they need to erect walls. No matter how ineffective they might be, the sense of security they produce makes any cost/benefit equation seem rational. Unfortunately, this only distorts its result. Such phenomenon could the baptized the ‘full circle of the wall’ effect. As states and their citizens do not wish to put up with the reality, they add more and more bricks to a wall that cannot bring them anything other than a false sense of security. With time and incidents showing that this approach does not work, the wall might actually come full circle and surround the whole group looking for more protection. However, by that time, they will unfortunately end up being the ones who are walled-out of the world.

Dusan Bozalka


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