Fifty years ago, on Aug. 13, under the cover of darkness, East Germany broke ground on the construction of the Berlin Wall, which became one of the most iconic symbols of violence and exclusion the world has ever known. When the Wall fell in 1989, the images broadcast around the world of Germans clamoring atop and dancing there, before tearing it down piece by piece, became an equally iconic symbol of the rapid decline of Soviet-style communism. It also raised hope that a new borderless world of democracy and globalization was dawning.
That hope now seems quaint. In the 22 years since the Berlin Wall fell, 28 new border walls have been constructed around the world, compared with only 11 in the 44-year period from the end of World War II until 1989. And, while the Wall was built by a totalitarian regime to prevent its own people from crossing a border in search of freedom and economic opportunity, the new barriers are often the work of leading democracies — including the US, the EU and India — that want to keep such people out.
The threat of terrorism has been used to justify some of the new walls, but the strongest indicator of whether a county will build a barrier is whether it shares a border with a substantially poorer neighbor. The average annual per capita GDP last year of the countries that have built barriers since the fall of the Berlin Wall was US$14,067; the average for the countries on the other side was US$2,801.
However, while a borderless world remains to be realized, the purpose of political borders has changed in the era of globalization. Historically, most political borders were defensive lines — places where one country’s army prevented the movement of another country’s army. After the creation of the UN, which requires that all member states respect all other members’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, borders came to separate different legal, economic and political systems.
Expensive border fences and walls are not necessary for these purposes: They do not stop the missiles or fighter jets of an invading army, and they are no better than a map at representing the edges of different polities, economies and jurisdictions. They are, however, relatively effective at preventing the movement of ordinary people.
People in poor or repressive societies, who are increasingly aware that people elsewhere live much more privileged lives, are encouraged to grasp the new economic and social opportunities of globalization, but only as long as they remain within the borders in which they were born. Bangladeshis are encouraged to live the dream of globalization by working in a new factory, rather than by moving to a country where they would be paid more for the same work. Zimbabweans who dream of freedom are encouraged to do everything they can in pursuit of democracy, except move their family to a place where democracy already exists.
The enduring legacy of the Berlin Wall is not the inspiring notion that freedom and the will of the people can knock down any barrier. Instead, the lesson learned has been that border walls — particularly those supported by large deployments of guards — are relatively effective at preventing the movement of poor people.
As a result, we live in a world that is more economically and socially interconnected than ever, but increasingly divided territorially by physical barriers that are taller, longer and stronger than their totalitarian antecedent’s planners could ever imagine.