Foreign Affairs: The great wall of Donald

For better or worse, the Mexican barrier Trump is about to build will be his leadership’s monument and the metaphor for an era.

A WORKER STANDS next to a newly built section of the US border fence at Sunland Park, New Mexico, opposite the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, on Wednesday. Picture taken from the Mexico side of the border. (photo credit: JOSE LUIS GONZALEZ/REUTERS)
A WORKER STANDS next to a newly built section of the US border fence at Sunland Park, New Mexico, opposite the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, on Wednesday. Picture taken from the Mexico side of the border.
‘When united,” say the Chinese, “the people are as strong as the Great Wall of China,” and “when divided,” Mexicans may soon add, “nations face a wall as brazen as Donald’s.”
True, not all Mexicans will be this despondent, and the wall will not be the planet’s longest – the Wall of China is more than six times the length of the Mexican-American border – but even so, the wall that began as an anecdotal candidate’s jingoism is now a presidential command.
Several years will elapse and a fortune will be spent before it sprawls between San Diego and Brownsville, but once it does, the wall will loom as a continental eyesore, a metaphor of the unfolding zeitgeist, a magnet for artistic dissent and an unusual presidency’s monument.
Eager to show he can do no less than he can talk, Trump had hardly entered the Oval Office when he began firing executive orders left and right, from one decreeing the cancellation of his predecessor’s healthcare reform to another that slashes budgeting for cities that accommodate illegal immigrants.
The orders’ themes match some of Trump’s most contentious campaign promises, most notably the one about banning all Muslims’ entry to the US, a sweeping quest that this week shrank to seven Middle Eastern countries, from Libya to Iran, which he rightly fingered as major producers of Islamist terrorism.
The wall, however, is a vow on an entirely different order, first of all because Trump has no way of either escaping or compromising it. The commitment has been so vocal, prominent and repetitive that failure to deliver it would be no less glaring than a structure linking oceans and dividing lands. Trump must therefore build his wall, if he is to retain the political capital he has so improbably earned.
The wall is also singular because of its costs.
Trump said he will not make do with a fence, and that the concrete wall on which he insists should be 30 feet (nearly 10 meters) tall at least, the equivalent of a three-story building. Engineers debriefed by the BBC say such a wall would require more than three times the amount of concrete used to build the Hoover Dam. Tracing the partly mountainous, 3,100 km.-border’s unfenced two-thirds, The Washington Post calculated that the project would cost $25 billion, as opposed to Trump’s election- time figure of $12b.
The wall’s price will also be environmental, most notably in its separation of male and female jaguars and bears that will be stranded on either side of the wall, unable to mate with their newly Mexican or American members of the opposite sex.
Then again, the wall’s heftiest cost will be in the realm of its intended benefit – international relations.
Trump’s aim, to stem the flow of illegal immigration to the US from all of Latin America, is broadly accepted as legitimate and even imperative. It is also likely that the wall will generally be effective, even though it is clear that smugglers – once they learn the wall’s mechanics and get a feel of its operation – will dig tunnels and lead immigrants under it.
Diplomatically, Trump has been trying to allay the fears he sparked that the wall would provoke conflict with the government of Mexico.
President Enrique Pena Nieto’s invitation to visit Trump next week is meant to create the impression that the wall is part of a healthy relationship, in the spirit of poet Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” where two neighbors jointly repair their fence while one waxes “he is all pine and I am apple orchard.”
Most Mexicans will not see things this way. The more the wall emerges, the more they will feel offended, even after Trump’s qualification that his anti-Mexican rhetoric was not about the Mexican people, only about illegal immigrants.
The Mexican government obviously rejected outright Trump’s promise that Mexico will pay for his wall. His recent footnote, that the payments will be charged indirectly, through various taxes and by blocking illegal immigrants’ transfer home of remittances, are no consolation to a country whose historic effort to befriend its northern neighbor has been fraught with envy, suspicion and despair.
Indeed, the wall’s most profound meaning is not in its diplomatic fallout, financial costs or environmental impact, but in the psychology that it will both reflect and foment, not only on both its American sides, but also throughout the rest of the world.
THE WALL’S most obvious statement is that the US is turning its back on the great hero of its evolution: the immigrant.
First, the sights of thousands of people working to raise the wall, and then the sight of its length, height and thickness will send to the world the message that the US is turning inward. It will be a statement of insularity the like of which the US has not made since the Johnson Act of 1924, which ended the great immigrations to the US.
This is the mentality that Trump’s “America First” slogan is designed to cultivate, and it will certainly be the image that the wall will inspire, as artists begin to coat it with graffiti that will likely correspond with Trump’s tweets and seldom soothe his wrath.
More substantively, the structure that will become a landmark as iconic as the Eiffel Tower and the Kremlin will connote a provincial suspicion toward strangers and an indifference toward the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” as Emma Lazarus’s line describes them inside the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. Now the “tempest- tost” approaching her lifted lamp will see the “golden door” beside it slammed shut.
Then again, Trump’s wall, like so many other things about him, while unique in its size, audacity and extravaganza, will not be novel. The trend and mind-set behind it have in fact been at play well before his candidacy matured and his scheme was announced.
Recent years’ illegal migrations have long produced barriers that are exactly what Trump’s wall is about, only smaller. One of them is right here, the 240-km. security barrier that Israel completed in 2012 along its Egyptian border in order to stem illegal immigration from Africa, an aim that this fence indeed achieved.
Migratory pressure of the sort Israel faced is a global problem, and governmental responses to it are gradually lining the globe with lengthy ditches, fences and walls, overlooked by watchtowers, drones, sentries, floodlights, armed patrols and barking dogs.
They stretch from Spain’s minuscule enclave on Morocco’s shores, where Africans flocked to set foot on European Union territory, to northern Syria, where Turkey is completing construction of a 900-km. wall; from Hungary, which two years ago raised a 523-km. fence along its Serbian and Croatian borders, to Saudi Arabia, which is raising a 1,000-km. wall along its entire north, from Jordan to Kuwait; and from Bulgaria, which is completing the fencing of its 166-km. border with Turkey, to India, which is raising barbed-wire fences along its borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh.
It all adds up to a grand backlash; the end of the era that climaxed with the fall of the Berlin Wall, a time when triumphant statesmen lowered borders by uniting passports, waiving visa requirements, slashing duties and cutting defense budgets, convinced that a great peace was descending on the world.
It was a mind-set that originated with the evolution of the European Union, before proceeding to America, where it inspired the North American Free Trade Agreement, and finally arriving in Israel, where it culminated in the Jewish state’s embrace of the New Middle East vision.
Now that era of good feeling is a fading memory. Israel’s naïve faith in the approach of a borderless Middle East gave way to a sober life between an anti-immigrant fence on its one flank and an anti-terrorist barrier on the other, while surrounded by multiple civil wars.
Europe’s epiphany of a borderless continent in a peaceful world has ended in migrants invading its shores, terrorists bleeding its towns, and Britain waving it good-bye, while Trump prepares to loosen the screws of NAFTA, NATO, ASEAN, the UN and anything else he can find in the alphabet soup.
It took a great deal of optimism to shape the era whose twilight now ends. That optimism is now gone.
Fear has returned to pervade humanity, while its leaders revert from cultivating what unites people to saluting what separates them. And no one is better equipped and inspired to build this pessimism’s monument than Donald Trump, whose wall will be for Western anxiety what the Berlin Wall was for Communist shame.