The Age of Walls | Tim Marshall

Summary of: The Age of Walls: How Barriers Between Nations Are Changing Our World (3) (Politics of Place)
By: Tim Marshall


In this engaging summary of ‘The Age of Walls: How Barriers Between Nations Are Changing Our World,’ author Tim Marshall documents an increasingly divided planet, as countries build walls and establish barriers. In a global atmosphere shifting towards tribalism and isolationism, the book explores how nations like China, the United States, and Israel heavily invest in border fortification. Marshall investigates the impact of these divisions on societies, economies, and the lives of ordinary people. Through these robust examples, the author reveals what lies at the heart of the wall-building trend and the implications it has on the world.

Walls Up: Tribalism and the Practice of Wall-Building

In 1987, Ronald Reagan’s speech signaled an era of openness and cooperation, but today the world has a “fortress mentality” with 65 nations building walls to keep out perceived enemies or threats. Some walls, like the iconic one between North and South Korea, are quite famous, but others have gone up with little fanfare, like Uzbekistan’s barrier with Tajikistan. The wall-building trend is a global one, with governments in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and North America engaging in the practice. The book delves into the reasons behind the resurgence of walls and the effects on global society.

China’s Great Wall and Modern Walls

China’s Great Wall might be a symbol of the country, but its biggest barriers are economic and cultural. There is a wide gap between the rich urban elite and poor rural masses, threatening the advances made by China’s economic progress. The persistence of the hukou system and other changes like an aging population and surplus of college graduates exacerbate the social divisions present in Chinese society. Beijing’s answer to this is a new kind of wall, a digital Great Firewall that blocks out Western news sources and social media, preventing outside influence and internal dissent.

In the popular imagination, China is instantly recognizable because of its Great Wall. However, the real walls in the country are not physical but rather cultural and economic. The Chinese government’s policies have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but these policies have also widened the gap between rich and poor, which threatens to reverse the progress achieved by the country’s economic success. Though the rural population in China outnumbers the urban population by around two to one, Beijing spends most on schools and social services in urban areas. Urban-dwelling Chinese citizens earn three times more than their rural counterparts, which exacerbates social inequality.

Despite decades of migration to urban areas, there remain stark divisions in Chinese society. One such factor is the hukou system, which categorizes citizens into rural or urban. This system means that even if a rural agricultural worker moves to a big city, they remain registered as a rural citizen, which limits the benefits they can receive access. Meanwhile, a rapidly aging population and a growing number of college graduates that exceed the workforce increases social divisions even further.

In response to these issues, Beijing has embraced a new kind of wall in the form of a digital Great Firewall that blocks Facebook, YouTube, and many foreign news sources. This wall not only prevents problematic ideas from outside the country from influencing Chinese citizens but also prevents internal dissent from organizing themselves and conducting protests against the government. All these walls built within China show that there is a lot of work to do to repair the economic and social structures within the country.

The Wall: A Symbolic Promise

Donald Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall along the Mexican border resonated with certain Americans, but constructing such a barrier faces significant challenges. Roughly two-thirds of the land along the border is privately owned, making compensation inevitable, and the rugged terrain of about 1,000 miles makes it impracticable to construct a physical wall. Despite the Department of Homeland Security estimating the cost of the wall at $21 billion, with some estimates reaching $40 billion, many Trump supporters still see the wall as representing progress towards stronger security at the border. However, the wall also reflects growing angst about the United States’ changing demographics, as Americans’ attitudes towards immigrants have historically been driven by economic concerns. While the border wall was already 600 miles long by the time Barack Obama took office, its effect on illegal immigration remains debatable. Similarly, it appears to have little impact on the trafficking of illegal goods across the border.

Israel-Palestine Wall: A Temporary or Permanent Barrier?

The 440-mile barrier between Israel and Palestine is a mix of fence and 26-foot high concrete bunker, which has been vandalized with graffiti. Israelis support the wall as it has reduced suicide bombings and other attacks. However, this has sparked a question; is the wall a temporary solution or will it become a permanent fixture? The wall highlights the growing diversity of Israel’s population, with the Muslim population rising to 17% while the Jewish population has decreased to 75% since the first census in 1948. There are economic gaps amongst the Jewish population, with Haredim suffering higher rates of poverty and unemployment. Israeli Arabs have a poverty rate of 50%. The wall, therefore, both conceals and underscores the challenges of growing diversity within Israel.

The Impact of Walls in the Middle East

The American invasion of Iraq set forth unintended consequences as it plunged the region into chaos and led to a surge in terror attacks. This has resulted in the creation of barriers, fences, and walls being built in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and Libya. Although cultural factors play a role in the lack of unity within the Middle East, the physical barriers highlight the deep ethnic, religious, and linguistic divisions. These walls stand as a representation of the region’s fragmentation and the missed opportunities for progress.

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