Speaking last month, Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, claimed that national borders are “the worst invention ever”, yet despite the promises of globalisation leading us towards a borderless world they are instead becoming more rigid than ever.
The development of borders as increasingly physical barriers is largely a response to global security and migration challenges. Some prominent examples include Saudi Arabia building a wall along its border with Iraq, India threatening to surround Bangladesh with a wall, Israel’s barrier with the West Bank and the new walls that Syrians trying to leave the country face effectively trapping them in.
The construction of new expensive barrier walls is very much in fashion. This month, in response to the build-up of refugees and migrants near the French port of Calais, the British immigration minister announced the plans to construct a “a big, new wall” to deal with the issue.
A new era of Iron Curtains
Meanwhile the most famous example is the promise from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to build a wall along 2,000 miles of the US border with Mexico.
At a rally this month in Phoenix, Arizona, Trump said that he would build an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful southern border wall” and that Mexico will pay for it “100 percent”.
Back in 1987, US President Ronald Reagan went to divided Berlin and urged the Soviets to “tear down this wall”, however it would seem that we are entering a new era of Iron Curtains.
Good neighbours make good borders, not the other way round and we should be wary as to the effectiveness of this new trend towards large border walls and the emergence of more fortified internal lines.
What makes these phenomena more complex is that the non-state actors that make up much of the modern global security challenge, are not confined to bounded territory.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group for example made a particular example of tearing down the Iraq-Syria border sand berm when they captured the territory declaring it the “death” of the Sykes-Picot colonial agreement that drew much of the Middle East’s borders.
The borders by which ISIL perceives its caliphate are fluid and cut across traditional international lines. This has led to the rise of reinforced internal borders set by both governments and non-state actors.
In Iraq, the Green Zone was once symbolic of a US enclave within the country. Today blast walls still dominate and divide the Iraqi capital and earlier in the year the government announced that it had begun building a wall and a trench around Baghdad in a bid to prevent militant attacks.
Good neighbours, good borders
Meanwhile in the north of the country Iraqi Kurdistan is a state within a state in all but name, with its own borders, border force and defined, although contested, sovereignty.
Likewise, in Syria the internal borders of the country are best typified by the colourful ISW maps that show who controls what. Turkey has recently sent its tanks across the border to ensure as Prime Minister Binali Yildirim explained – “we will never allow the formation of an artificial state in the north of Syria”.
Turkey had previously begun investing in a four-metre wall along sections of its shared border with Syria and is now claiming that its operation means that ISIL no longer shares a land border with NATO.
Bret Stephens wrote in the Wall Street Journal this month that the Lavrov-Kerry principle that “Syria should be a unified country” must be abandoned in favour of a Yugoslavia-esq partition.
I’ve not yet heard a Syrian voice in favour of partition however in a new European Council on Foreign Relations report Syrian journalist Jihad Yazigi explained that “Damascus will struggle to ever reassert control” and there is a need to explore “political decentralisation, including a special status for areas of high Kurdish concentration”.
At present, Syria has de facto decentralisation with all sides looking to defend or expand on what they hold.
Good neighbours make good borders, not the other way round and we should be wary as to the effectiveness of this new trend towards large border walls and the emergence of more fortified internal lines. The emotional appeal of huge walls is the antithesis to the apparent free movement of our globalised world and functional-strategic issues such as border securitisation have been transformed into a political-ideological football around wider issues of immigration and identity.
Interestingly, back in 2013 Donald Trump tweeted a quote from Isaac Newton that “we build too many walls and not enough bridges”. His position today highlights the arms race in building walls and the gap between rhetoric and reality when it comes to this geopolitical tool of choice.
James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.