By María Noel Irabedra

What if I told you that in today’s world there are more than sixty walls erected in order to reinforce borders between nations, in the best Berlin Wall style?

We are constantly being told we live in a globalized and interconnected world, where the means of communications and travel are widely spread and accessible, allowing countries to become more closely connected. And yet there is still some evidence that we are not in such a transformed world yet.  We are living in a world where magnificent scientific advances let us diminish distances or move faster than ever before, but also in a world where the lack of understanding and dialogue regarding cross border controversies is still present, encouraging the construction of barriers that, instead of integrating and shaping peaceful international relations, damage them, establishing hurtful distances.

It is true that several things have improved in terms of relations between countries, especially after the Cold War, and that a great effort has been made to enhance international cooperation and security, but there is undoubtedly still a lot of work ahead in order to reach a truly globalized and desirable world.

Throughout history, walls have always been seen as effective tools to protect territories from invasions. In the past, war was mostly based on physical confrontation and contact; twenty-first century diplomacy and mediation were unavailable to ameliorate international disputes. But now, unquestionably, this old-fashioned form of protection should be obsolete due to the emergence of international organizations, instances of cross national dialogue and evolved instruments of negotiation, which have established rules and frameworks that offer more civilized and friendly resolution during conflict.

Today there are more than sixty border walls in existence or under construction around the globe. They mostly exist in conflict zones, or areas of great immigrant flow, and they are often categorized as “security measures” to protect countries from the dangers of the outside world. Examples include the walls between the United States and Mexico, North and South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, India and Bangladesh, and in Belfast, between the Catholic and Protestant communities.

Why are countries still building walls?

The aim of these walls is multifold: they allow the involved parties to avoid physical contact and to stop or limit migration flows and terrorist or religious expansion. But twenty-first century walls are much more than material barriers; they are ideological barriers that try to create mental images of separation and discrimination, alienating the possibility of  integration and acceptance.

Can these walls be considered as Soft Power Tools?

In the past, border walls were displays of hard power built as military reinforcements to stop enemies from penetrating borders and limiting their battle camps. Although today they might serve the same purpose, they are also linked to other aims.

Soft power is a term coined by Joseph Nye, which he uses to identify a distinct level of power that is different from the purely militaristic one that states tend to use frequently today. These two spheres of action act together to form a state’s foreign policy and shape the way a country exercises its international relations. Depending on the perspective from which they are seen, border barriers can be viewed as part of both soft or hard power displays.

Soft power is associated with certain practices that aim to persuade others that they want the same outcomes as you. The walls that exist today are much bigger than they appear; they have a more profound meaning than just a wall made of blocks. Outside their tangible component, their immaterial objective is creating intangible divides between nations, people, ethnic groups or religious communities, denying them any hope of unity, peaceful interaction, humanity and solidarity in face of the issues that separate them. These walls symbolize that the only permissible relation between the two involved parties is the annulment of every possible human contact.

For example, in the 1970s, a wall was erected in the heart of Belfast, the capital city of Northern Ireland, in order to separate the Catholic and Protestant communities and avoid potential clashes. Maybe this was considered a provisional solution while a long term alternative was being pursued, in order to bypass worse immediate outcomes, but it does not seem to be the case, because no meaningful proposals have been advanced until recently. Walls, in this case, act as a means to avoid conflict, but they also persist for a longer term than intended.

International organizations such as the United Nations offer the key to a negotiations-based solution.  Without bilateral or multilateral agreements , a long-term solution is unimaginable. States and international peacemakers should discourage intolerance and promote acceptance and generosity in order to improve the quality of life, to discourage forced migration, create opportunities, eradicate funding for terrorism and avoid confrontation. Without this, globalization’s only successes will be the revolution of communications and technology. To evolve, cooperation, dialogue and acceptance are needed. This is the only path to grow and overcome the inherent issues that walls create between countries.

More bridges, not walls, are needed.

Credit for featured image: Noud W., CC Flickr. License can be found here.