A historical lens on Trump’s wall

The University of Auckland's Stephen Hoadley examines the building of walls as a simple and superficially appealing initiative launched by leaders throughout history

President Trump continues to insist that a southern border wall is necessary for US national security. He is still demanding a budget allocation of USD five billion to finance it.  Speaker of the House of Representatives Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Schumer have responded that a wall would be ineffective, unnecessary and un-American, and refused to approve the allocation for Trump’s wall.  This budget impasse has precipitated the longest interruption of pay to federal employees in US history.

The acrimonious political and media debate, mainly (but not exclusively) across the Republican-Democrat partisan divide, has drowned out fact-based attempts to assess the pros and cons of building a wall.

There are already hundreds of miles of walls, fences, and other demarcations in place separating the US from Mexico so it begs the question: Have walls built by governments ever provided protection from unwanted migration and, more broadly, greater security?  

First, to answer this question, we can look back at historical precedents. These range from the Amorite Wall in Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) in 2100 BC and include the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s Wall in England (120 AD), the Persian’s Gorgon Wall (400 AD), Emperors Constantine’s and Theodosius’s walls protecting Constantinople from the late 300s till the Muslim conquest in 1453, and the Ming Emperor’s Great Wall of China (1450 AD).  Each was temporarily effective in keeping out ‘barbarians’ (nomads, Celts, Huns, Muslims, Mongols, Manchurians) but all were eventually breached and rendered irrelevant. 

More recent walls or border fences include those erected by the governments of South Korea and North Korea to stop virtually all human movement (at the DMZ from 1954), India to impede migration from Bangladesh in the 1980s, East Germany’s Berlin Wall to stem emigration to the West (1961), the United Kingdom’s ‘Peace Wall’ in Belfast to keep Catholics and Protestants apart (1969), Spain’s Melilla enclave fence in Morocco to keep out African migrants (1993), Israel’s walls with the West Bank and Egypt to keep out terrorists (2000s), and Egypt’s fence to keep out smugglers and terrorists from Gaza (2013).    

Results have proved mixed. While generally judged effective in reducing illegal crossings and reducing conflict, the fences proved costly, unpopular, provocative, and marred by frequent breaches, often by bribery of corrupt border officials working with ingenious and unscrupulous people smugglers.

In some cases walls have generated false senses of security, undermined political unity, diverted public resources, and generated renewed opposition among those walled out. 

In the past two decades, European governments have accelerated the erection of border barriers, spurred by the upsurge of terrorism, civil wars, and global financial crisis-inspired migrations from the Middle East and Africa. According to Professor Elisabeth Vallet in her book Borders, Fences and Walls, physical barriers increased from seven in 1945 to 15 in 1989 to more than 77 currently.

These include Hungary’s new border fence with Serbia and Croatia, which violated European Union policies of free intra-Europe movement. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these measures, and those taken by Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Australia at their maritime borders, have been successful in reducing the number of illegal entries ... but not in stopping them.      

If the Trump administration could lead a study of how effectively each of these walls or fences or policies has operated, and at what fiscal, political and legal costs, finding common policy ground with the Democrats should be feasible. 

Democrat leaders readily agree with Trump that border security is paramount, but they dispute that a physical barrier would be cost-effective. They recommend better patrolling, more expeditious asylum-seeker processing, integration of the 10 million illegal migrants already resident in the US, as well as assisting source countries to reduce migration ‘push’ incentives such as war, poverty, crime and poor governance.

A second approach to the Trump-Pelosi debate is to analyse the varied political motives for building walls. I suggest the following:

- Leaders erect walls not only to keep out migrants but also to deter and defend against foreign attackers.

- The building of walls enhances the reputations of leaders for decisiveness and bequeaths to them historical legacies of grand monuments. 

- Walls demarcate ‘us’ from ‘them’ and symbolically forge national identity.

- Walls provide employment and focus elite energies, both of which legitimise regimes. 

Viewed in this political light, President Trump’s insistence on US$5 billion for his wall is at best an effort to fulfil a campaign promise to ‘make America great again’, stand firm against alleged foreign threats, and appeal to the Republican ‘base’ to keep it loyal as Trump bids for the presidency in 2020.  

At worst, the insistence on full funding of a 2000-mile wall is an expression of Trump’s vanity for which one million furloughed or unpaid federal workers suffered. Many of those are border or security officials, whose effectiveness in carrying out Trump’s border security policies must be undermined. Furthermore, exclusive focus on a wall diverts attention and funding from more comprehensive effective border protection and long-term immigration and integration policies already in place, which could be enhanced.

If it is ever funded, the wall will be another burden on the US taxpayer, not on Mexico as Trump boasted during his campaign.

In short, the Trump-Pelosi debate is less about the need for border security than about how best to achieve it. Building walls is a simple and superficially appealing initiative that has been launched by leaders throughout history. But walls have proved effective only when coordinated with other policies and underpinned by regime legitimacy, military and administrative effectiveness, and national unity.  Even then, walls have not prevented the defeat or collapse of wall-building regimes. In some cases walls have generated false senses of security, undermined political unity, diverted public resources, and generated renewed opposition among those walled out. 

With this in mind, wall debates in the US and other wall-building countries should be enlarged to include historical and political perspectives and evidence of how border protection policies can be executed effectively and efficiently. And academics and investigative journalists should contribute facts, reasoned analyses and insights to this important policy debate on how best to manage the rising tide of migration.

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