Freedom in a borderless world – this was the hope thirty years ago, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But instead of disappearing, more and more hard border fortifications arise in Europe.
After the end of the Cold War, borders were seen as a legacy of the past. The new freedom of movement inside the EU served as an attractive model for the former Communist bloc. Also, from a global perspective, borders were meant to be lifted as much as possible to fulfill the promise of globalization and liberal democracy.
However, this perspective changed with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Borders transformed from static lines to deterritorialized surveillance networks. The ambition was to combine international mobility with a new type of electronic controls, which involve both state actors and private companies. Any kind of transnational flow, be it goods, capital or persons, should be subject to seamless documentation, screening and authorization right from the source to its final destination.
Yet instead of reassuring liberal democracies in their way of life through new security technologies, the so-called War on Terrorism fueled a sense of paranoia and erosion of political freedoms. By the late 2000s, economic shocks, rising inequality and a growing political backlash against globalization led to a resurgence of nationalism in the West, while China and Russia became more vocal in their challenge of the established global order.
Worldwide spread of border installations
Nowadays, borders have come to highlight the crisis of liberal democracy and the growing divisions between cosmopolitan elites and „ordinary people“, which predominantly live in smaller towns or the country-side. The resurrection of physical borders has taken on an outsized symbolic importance. Already at the beginning of the 2010s, the number of international hard border fortifications had gone up from 15 at the end of the Cold War to over 70, comprising a total of more than 30.000 kilometers.
Since then, border installations have rapidly spread further around the world due to violent conflicts and population movements, among others, between Russia and Ukraine, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Israel and Egypt or between Turkey and Syria as well as Iran.
And since the election of Donald Trump, his promise to build a beautiful wall towards Mexico polarized U.S. politics as well as relations with Central America. In this light, new border installations are either criticized as an outgrowth of senseless populism with inhuman consequences on vulnerable refugees or as the last line of defense against globalization, unchecked immigration and even moral decay.