According to Tim Marshall, the fall of the Berlin Wall was the exception rather than the rule. ‘We are seeing walls being built along borders everywhere,’ he writes.
The numbers support his argument. Fortified borders have increased from almost zero at the end of WWII to around 70 today, with the vast majority having been built since 2000. The divides continue to steer geopolitics and national identities, and countries appear to be goading each other into more wall building. ‘These are the fault lines that will shape our world for years to come,’ says Marshall.
In that sense, President Trump’s campaign border wall seems less a shocking new policy than a repeating pattern. As one of the most high-profile border issues, Marshall devotes an early chapter to the Mexico/US divide and uses it to lay the foundations for what makes hard borders persuasive in popular politics – even if they are ineffective at preventing illegal immigration. Marshall puts it bluntly: ‘they make people who want something to be done feel that something is being done... Ultimately, very few barriers are impenetrable. People are resourceful, and those desperate enough will find a way around.’
Marshall takes us on a tour of some of the most relevant border divides in the world: India’s borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Israel and Palestine border in the West Bank, the new borders across the Middle East and those running across Europe. The effectiveness of barriers are explored but more important to the author is the desire for divide – ‘us and them thinking’ – and where it gets us in the 21st century.
Readers of Prisoners of Geography, Marshall’s previous work, will be familiar with his global sweep explained through history and geography. Occasionally, his strokes are too broad. For example, only a single chapter is given to the whole continent of Africa, which suffers for it.
Where Divided is in its most revelatory, however, is where it looks at borders on an internal level, such as gated communities in South Africa and the US. Here Marshall shows how levels of exclusivity can spiral inward from the international to the regional to the local. ‘The new model of urban and suburban living is designed to be exclusionary: you can only get to the town square if you can get through the security surrounding the town. This lack of interaction may shrink the sense of civic engagement, encourage group-think among those on the inside and lead to a psychological division, with poorer people left feeling like “outsiders”, as though they have been walled off.’
In China, he argues, it is the entire population who are excluded. The ‘Great Firewall’ of China keeps the country’s 700 million users (roughly one-quarter of the world’s online population) excluded from the foreign media, meanwhile, internal firewalls and censorship keep the users from connecting too much with each other. ‘The party particularly fears social media being used to organise like-minded groups who might then gather in public places to demonstrate, which in turn could lead to rioting,’ he writes.
Divided also shines a light on the future of borders. ‘The technology becomes more sophisticated each year,’ Marshall warns. ‘The barriers along the majority of the thousands of miles of frontiers are now being built higher and wider and are becoming more technologically sophisticated... such barriers don’t stop people from attempting to cross anyway – many don’t have any other choice but to try – and increasingly violent policing of borders can lead to terrible human consequences.’ With border deaths at the highest numbers in history, it begs the question, what will more efficient borders – utilising drones, motion sensors and higher walls – mean to the people near to them?
Answers are where Divided leaves us hanging. Perhaps this is because of the global scope of the book – there is probably no one-size-fits-all solution to the wall-building spree – but also because of the tricky nature of barriers themselves. Walls can prevent violence, but they can cause it too. Having heard, however, about some of the most entrenched borders in the world, the reader has a natural appetite for solutions to remove them, or at least to stem the rate of barriers rising elsewhere. Something Marshall is surprisingly on the fence about.