Global Challenges
Issue no. 4 | October 2018
Epidemia of Walls in an (Un)free World
Global Challenges
Issue no. 4 | October 2018
Epidemia of Walls in an (Un)free World | Article 2

The “Great Wall” of America: Historical Opportunities

Reading time: 3 min

US President Trump’s Great Wall project has outraged Mexican public opinion. However, man-made physical barriers between the two countries have existed long before Trump came into power. The product of Western liberalism, the prospect of a permanent wall provides new opportunities for both Mexico and the US to re-examine the future of their convoluted bilateral relation in the context of a post-Western world order.

Mexican public opinion is incensed. The source of this public uproar are the controversial declarations and actions of US President Donald Trump against Mexico and the Hispanic community at large. The list of grievances encompasses theoutrageous claims that Mexican migrants are rapists, the detention of minors in deplorable conditions, and, of course, the plans for building a wall. For many in Mexico, the source of this problem dates to the fateful invitation by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to both US presidential candidates in the summer of 2016. An invitation only taken up by Trump and rejected by the frontrunner, Hillary Clinton.

The pharisaic aspect of the Mexican outrage lies in the fact that the border wall between the United States and Mexico is over 60 years old. Between San Ysidro, California, and Tijuana, Mexico, a fence was first erected in the 1950s, only to be reinforced with recycled military landing platforms in the 1990s. In 1994, President Clinton launched Operation Gatekeeper in California, Operation Hold-the-Line in Texas and Operation Safeguard in Arizona to strengthen border security. In 1996, a Democratic Congress and President approved further barriers on the border. In 2006, President Bush signed into law the Secure Fence Act with the support of Senators Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Joseph Biden. By 2015, about a third of the US–Mexico border (1,078 km out of 3,140 km) already had some type of man-made physical barrier. Contrary to popular belief, a Great Wall between Mexico and the United States has been a long-cherished American bipartisan project predating the Trump era.

The brainchild of liberalism…

The Great Wall of America is thus a brainchild of the liberal world order established under Pax Americana in the aftermath of WWII. It is therefore no coincidence that as the world moves towards a post-Western order, the border wall poisons the already difficult bilateral relation between Mexico and the US. While the American political elite has been rather dysfunctional in addressing popular anxieties over the last decade, the Mexican business elite experiences difficulties to imagine a world beyond American dominance. After all, since the late nineteenth century the Mexican economy has chiefly relied on capital flows stemming from Wall Street, and since the adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 nearly 80% of Mexican exports head to the United States despite the most determined efforts to facilitate investments and trade flows from other countries. Such is the power of habit.

Border Patrol conducting patrols on ATVs.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (https://www.flickr.com/photos/cbpphotos/8406673262/)

While American dominance has contributed significantly to Mexican development, the power of habit has become deadly as of late. Since the internationalisation of a prohibitionist regime by the Reagan administration, the pressure borne by Mexico’s justice system from illegal CIA and DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) operatives in Mexican territory has resulted in a lethal war on drugs. Notwithstanding close governmental collaboration, 22 million American residents still get their illegal substances smuggled across the border while over 200,000 Mexicans have been murdered and over 34,000 have disappeared since 2006. Unsurprisingly, these numbers have influenced much of the discourse motivating the US bipartisan consensus on wall-building as Mexican immigration became entangled with this public security crisis in Mexico.

…could turn into a wall of opportunities

Despite this convoluted past, a consolidated border wall between Mexico and the US may become an opportunity for both countries as a more diverse world order emerges. After all, Mexico has 15 free trade agreements covering 45 countries around the world, 31 investment promotion and protection agreements, and 9 commercial agreements. It possesses the tenth most traded currency in the world and second most traded emerging market currency, only after the Chinese renminbi. Based on estimates by the International Monetary Fund, PricewaterhouseCoopers forecasted that Mexico would emerge as the seventh largest economy in the world by 2050. Mexico also welcomed over 39 million tourists in 2017, becoming the sixth most visited country. Aware of its responsibilities in fighting climate change, Mexico now taxes carbon, possesses a voluntary carbon trading scheme and offers one of the world’s seven environmental stock markets facilitating a transition to a low carbon economy. As per the OECD, Mexico also pursues policies conducive to gender equality, and the pay gap is lower than in Switzerland. In short, Mexico is far removed from the Hollywood stereotypes of border town movies. Instead, as Claudia Ruiz Massieu – Mexican Foreign Minister at the time – made clear in 2016, Mexico is willing to share in the costs and responsibilities that a post-Western world order entail.

At first sight, the political instrumentalisation of the border wall issue by President Trump appears as a strident break from the American-led liberal order. In a more careful consideration, however, it stands in the continuity of the American political elite’s failure to explain the ramifications of the liberal world order to its domestic constituencies. The Great Wall of America now offers a test to the perpetuation of the unquestioned American dominance and a respite to reflect on the emergence of a post-Western world order. It is therefore a wall full of opportunities.

By Samuel Segura Cobos
PhD Candidate in International History
The Graduate Institute, Geneva

Share this article:
Header image caption: This is a monument for those who have died attempting to cross the US-Mexican border. Each coffin represents a year and the number of dead. It is a protest against the effects of Operation Guardian. Taken at the Tijuana-San Diego border.

Southwest Border Migrant Apprehensions Have Dropped to Early 1970s Levels

Source : US Customs and Border Protection.

Info Box

Fact Sheet: The US-Mexican Border Fence: Major Milestones and Motivations


US Immigration and Naturalisation Service commissions the International Boundary and Water Commission to build 1.5 kilometre of chain-link fencing in strategic areas at Calexico and San Ysidro, in California, and Nogales, in Arizona, compelling illegal migrants to seek crossings in more difficult (desert) terrains.


US Border Patrol installs sensors and stronger fencing in San Diego, California, and El Paso, Texas. Operations Hold-the-Line in Texas, Gatekeeper in San Diego and Safeguard in Arizona increase the number of surveillance activities. The combination of the fence and the patrolling activities aims at deterring crossers from entering the United States via unregulated pathways.


The US Department of Homeland Security waivers all legal requirements for expeditious construction of barriers along the border, facilitating the trebling of fences in densely populated urban areas in the American Southwest. In the fall of 2006, the 109th Congress authorises the construction of 700 miles of fencing in rural areas in California and Arizona, with the aim of linking existing urban fences with rural barriers.


President Trump proposes the construction of a large, fortified wall along the US-Mexico border during the 2016 presidential campaign. On 25 January 2017, he signs the Executive Order “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements” to begin the extension of the border wall. The March 2017 US budget blueprint includes USD 2.6 billion high-priority border security technology and tactical infrastructure. On 3 June 2018, the construction of the San Diego, California, section of the border wall begins, with the aim of  rendering the border impermeable.


1,120 km between California  and Texas – around a third of the total border length of 3,141 km.


USD 10 to 20 billion. 

Prof. David Sylvan on the wall, Trump and the show

Research Office, The Graduate Institute, Geneva.

Increasing Number of Walls in the World, 1945–2018

Based on Samuel Granados, Zoeann Murphy, Kevin Schaul and Anthony Faiola, “Raising Barriers: A New Age of Walls”, The Washington Post, 12 October 2016.

United States/Mexico



South Korea/North Korea


Israeli West Bank Barrier

USD 10 to 20 billion
1,120 km between California and Texas, around a third of the total border length of 3,141 km.


  • In 1994, US Border Patrol installed sensors and stronger fencing in San Diego, California, and El Paso, Texas. In the fall of 2006, the Congress authorised the construction of 700 miles of fencing in rural areas in California and Arizona. In January 2017, President Trump signed an Executive Order to begin the extension of the border wall.
Read article
Get an idea of the wall in this map
Not known
The fence covers 3,200 km of the 4,096.7-km-long border


  • The fence finds its origin in the Assam Accord of 1985 signed between representatives of the Government of India and the leaders of the sub-national Assam Movement. The accord accommodated the claims of the Assam Movement to keep out irregular migrants. The construction of the fence started in 1993.
Read article
Get an idea of the wall in this map
CHF 1,400 million estimated
8 km already done of the 700-km-long project


  • Following the siege of Garissa University in 2015, the Kenyan government announced the construction of the wall.
  • Project stopped in January 2018 to open negotiations with the Somalian Government.
Read article
Get an idea of the wall in this map
Not known
764-km-long wall


  • In March 2015, Turkey closed its border with Syria.
  • In August 2015, the first section of the border wall was constructed in Reyhanli.
  • The wall was completed in June 2018.
Read article
Get an idea of the wall in this map
Not known
The DMZ is 250 km (160 miles) long and about 4 km (2.5 miles) wide.


  • In the Armistice Agreement of 27 July 1953, the DMZ was created as each side agreed to move their troops 2,000 m (2,200 yards) back from the front line, creating a 4-km-wide (2.5-mi-wide) buffer zone.
Read article
Get an idea of the wall in this map
Each kilometre costs EUR 2 million for a total cost of about EUR 1.4 billion.
700 km.


  • The barrier was built in 2002, during the Second Intifada that had begun in September 2000, and was officially justified by the Israeli need of security against the wave of violence.
Read article
Get an idea of the wall in this map
Info Box

Definition of “Wall”

"The English word ‘wall’ is derived from the Latin vallus meaning a ‘stake’ or 'post’ and designated the wood-stake and earth palisade which formed the outer edge of a fortification. Walls have traditionally been built for defense, privacy, and to protect the people of a certain region from the influence or perceived danger posed by outsiders” (from Joshua J. Mark, Ancient History Encyclopedia, https://www.ancient.eu/wall/).

Walls are social constructions that are often used in a metaphorical sense, serving as canvas to cultural and/or political projections. An example in point is the 1979 album The Wall of the progressive/psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd. Physical walls are the offspring of our mental walls but physical walls, in turn, also impact our mental maps and the way we configure spatial identities and alterity.

In academic terms, walls have further been described as “an exercise in verticality” (Carl Nightingale), as “top-down controlled sluices of human movement, points of banishment, and perfect locations for tax collection” (Carl Nightingale), as “material things with symbolic meaning” (Tamar Herzog) and, finally, as “sites of negotiation and practice-making or -following” (Tamar Herzog).

All quotes from Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Tamar Herzog, Daniel Jütte, Carl Nightingale, William Rankin and Keren Weitzberg, “AHR Conversation: Walls, Borders, and Boundaries in World History”, American Historical Review 122, no. 5 (2017): 1501–1553, doi:10.1093/ahr/122.5.1501.

To Top