(Book Review) The Age of Walls: How Barriers Between Nations Are Changing Our World

449c9c25-026f-452f-8537-1a71c82be43cWhen I saw The Age of Walls: How Barriers Between Nations Are Changing Our World by Tim Marshall lurking in my paused holds at the library, I thought it couldn’t be more timely and snapped it up.

In the book, foreign affairs expert Tim Marshall examines border walls (a term he uses broadly to also include fences and other barriers) around the globe and unpacks what they represent in the politics of particular places. The book is part of a Politics and Place series.

The book begins with an overview of just how prevalent wall-building is in our current moment and what the rise of walls reflects about political discourse in our time. One particularly striking fact:

“At least sixty-five countries,  more than a third of the world’s nation-states, have built barriers along their borders; half of those erected since World War II sprang up between 2000 and now” (2).

Given current events in the United States (the government shutdown over funding for a border wall that Trump said Mexico would pay for), I want to focus specifically on the chapter about the U.S.-Mexico Border. Of this border, Marshall writes:

“This is perhaps the most famous nonexistent wall in the world. But even though it is yet to be constructed, it is a powerful symbol of how division has driven and continues to drive the cultural and political juggernaut that is the USA” (42).

In the chapter, Marshall provides an overview of how the border wall became an issue in U.S. politics, tracking the building of fences along the border all the way back to the  acquisition of Texas in 1854, as well as in the Clinton, Bush 2, and Obama administrations. He also gives a history of how the southwestern border of the United States shifted over the course of the 1800s and the political concerns that influenced those changes. I think that history is very important for understanding some of the issues involving race, culture, and economics along that border. For example, Marshall discusses how the flow of migrant workers across the border became a political issue in the Great Depression, as the strategy was to protect jobs for U.S. workers (even leading to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of workers to Mexico—many of whom were U.S. citizens). Then, during World War II, when many U.S. citizens were off at war and the wartime industries were booming, the strategy changed to one of attracting workers from Mexico to work in farming and manufacturing in the United States.

After providing some historical context, Marshall sifts to our current moment and what the wall stands in for in the political rhetoric of the GOP. In short, he argues that the emphasis on building a wall stems from a desire to stypmie shifts in demographics that, if they follow current trends, would see nonwhite minorities, with Hispanics comprising the largest group, overtaking white Americans as the majority in the next thirty years. From there, he looks at other forms of difference that are dividing the  U.S. politically including religion, globalization, and political party.

Overall, this book provides an overview of the issues, but not a lot of depth. I think that the move from looking at the U.S.-Mexico border wall to looking at divisions in U.S. politics more broadly was kind of a bait-and-switch; I would have liked the connections to be drawn out more. There were also some odd writing moments that could have used a more meticulous copy editor. For example: “America is a violent country compared to Europe” (62) sounds weird considering that the United States is a country and Europe is a continent. Nevertheless,  for a causal reader (like me) looking for more historical and geopolitical context for the current nationalist moment, this book provides some good insights and is fairly easy to read.

Other chapters of note: I suspect the analysis of the Israel-Palestine border is fairly shallow, but so is my understanding of that conflict, so I found it helpful.  There is also an interesting chapter about China.  From there, the analysis moves from countries to continents and in this move gets less specific in its analysis.

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