Our turbulent world needs strong walls

Liberals love to condemn President Trump’s wall but ignore the

importance of keeping our borders safe and secure.

They have appeared in the California scrubland like faceless Easter Island statues; eight slabs of concrete and metal standing up to 30ft high. To test their strength, these prototype sections for President Trump’s wall are currently being attacked by jackhammers and saws — and attacked from elsewhere too. Last week the Bishop of Liverpool spoke darkly of “a system which builds walls instead of bridges”. This follows various wall-bashing statements from the Pope: the Christian calling is “to not raise walls but bridges”; “a person who thinks only about building walls and not building bridges is not Christian.”

If you’re ever groping for a piety, reach for walls v bridges. Isaac Newton’s “we build too many walls and not enough bridges” has since been paraphrased by countless chin strokers, Instagram quoters and now, in relation to Trump, by everyone from Hillary Clinton to the former President of Mexico. Walls have become a shorthand for all that liberals hate, a symbol to rail against.

Whether it is Trump’s wall, or the plans for a British-funded barrier at Calais (which a UN special representative cried was “inhumane”), a wall or wall-like structure earns knee-jerk condemnation.

Blow your trumpets! Tear down these walls! Amid all the righteous fury I find myself wondering what is so terrible about building walls along existing borders. We are not talking about Berlin walls slicing through the heart of cities and nations; walls to keep people in or limit the freedom of citizens. Nor are we talking about barriers like that on the West Bank, which passes through hotly disputed territory. We are talking, in Trump’s case, about a democratically elected president seeking to make his country’s borders more secure, to keep illegal immigrants and illegal substances out; the right of any sovereign nation. What’s wrong, in principle, with that? . . .

I understand those who object to the wall on the grounds that it will be impossible to build, or indeed ineffective when built. Harder to fathom are those who object to the very idea of a wall. The wall as a symbol of unfriendliness. The wall as reminder of the existence of nation states.

The truth is that those who object to Trump’s wall in principle find the whole idea of national borders rather distasteful and xenophobic. There are liberals across the world who still cherish the dream of a borderless world. As Rutger Bregman argued in his international bestseller Utopia for Realists, “Borders are the single biggest cause of discrimination in all of world history. Inequality gaps between people living in the same country are nothing in comparison to those between separated global citizenries.”

As well as preventing people from fulfilling their economic destiny, open-border utopians see national boundaries as the source of all conflict. In the words of John Lennon, they want us to “imagine there’s no countries . . . nothing to kill or die for”. In this rather Pollyanna-ish view, borders don’t usefully separate those who for reasons of culture, religion or tribal loyalty would otherwise be warring; they create the division and difference in the first place. And so the idea of tearing down walls and loosening borders is the dream of liberals, progressives and Marxists the world over. Labour’s own John McDonnell declared in 2016 that “in this century, we will have open borders. We are seeing it in Europe already. The movement of peoples across the globe will mean that borders are almost going to become irrelevant by the end of this century”.

Against these dangerous ideas it is important that the counter-argument is made: that strong, effectively policed borders are not the bar to a better world but a prerequisite for it. When people feel there is little control over who comes in to their country resentment builds, antipathy to legal immigration increases, public generosity wears thin and people harden their hearts not only to those seeking a new home but to the poor at home already needing help. The more the welfare state of any nation appears to be a sieve through which people of any nation may enter, the more consent for welfare itself is undermined.

Strong borders — and the public confidence they engender — are vital, too, in avoiding swings to the extremes of politics. Angela Merkel and other European leaders experimented with relaxed borders and their populations responded to this dangerous benevolence by voting in their droves for the far-right. Alternative for Germany made it into the German parliament for the first time. In the Netherlands Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom gained seats. Last month the Freedom Party entered the Austrian government as part of a coalition deal.

The need for strong borders should not only be seen from the perspective of the West, either. When the brightest and most dynamic young people from South America, north Africa or the Middle East are lured by an easy passage to a new life, the developing world is not served. It is easy for someone such as the Pope, behind the high walls of the Vatican, to talk of migrants and local populations all having “the same right to enjoy the goods of the earth, whose destination is universal”, but in reality this means the developing world denuded of the talent it needs to prosper, while the poorest and neediest across the West bear the brunt of mass migration.

Anyone who wishes to maintain moderate political systems and generous welfare states — as well as a basic level of national security — should support the right of sovereign nations to strengthen their borders, whether that strength takes the form of checkpoints, stricter passport controls or reinforced concrete. Our world needs walls, however ugly they may be [Deuteronomy 32: 8].


(This slightly edited comment first appeared in The Times, London,

for 2 January, 2018)




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