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The Berlin Wall’s Children

HONOLULU – Fifty years ago today, on August 13, under the cover of darkness, East Germany broke ground on the construction of the Berlin Wall, which became one of the most iconic symbols of violence and exclusion the world has ever known. When the Wall fell in 1989, the images broadcast around the world of Germans clamoring atop and dancing there, before tearing it down piece by piece, became an equally iconic symbol of the rapid decline of Soviet-style Communism. It also raised hope that a new borderless world of democracy and globalization was dawning.

That hope now seems quaint. In the 22 years since the Berlin Wall fell, 28 new border walls have been constructed around the world, compared to only 11 in the 44-year period from the end of World War II until 1989. And, while the Wall was built by a totalitarian regime to prevent its own people from crossing a border in search of freedom and economic opportunity, the new barriers are often the work of leading democracies – including the United States, the European Union, and India – that want to keep such people out.

The threat of terrorism has been used to justify some of the new walls; but the strongest indicator of whether a county will build a barrier is whether it shares a border with a substantially poorer neighbor. The average annual per capita GDP (in 2010 US dollars) of the countries that have built barriers since the fall of the Berlin Wall is $14,067; the average for the countries on the other side is $2,801.

But, while a borderless world remains to be realized, the purpose of political borders has changed in the era of globalization. Historically, most political borders were defensive lines – places where one country’s army prevented the movement of another country’s army. After the creation of the United Nations, which requires that all member states respect all other members’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, borders came to separate different legal, economic, and political systems.