By Heberto Alexander Limas-Villers
“Build The Wall,” shorthand for Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall on the border, was perhaps the policy choice that electrified millions of Americans to vote for him. Since the policy’s inception, it’s become a slogan for Trump supporters and an easy way for the Democrats to reject the other side. When he became president, he indicated on Fox that he would build a fence instead of a full-fledged wall, yet all doubts flew away with his executive order authorizing the wall’s construction. Many pundits have either ridiculed the idea that the wall will keep immigrants out or decried the wall as a racist policy. While the wall is certainly motivated by racial bias and is likely not to work, building the wall has a deeper meaning as it is a statement to the world that the United States will abandon its role in the world stage.
Historically, walls have been used to mark the borders of towns, kingdoms, and empires. Despite a wall’s general effectiveness in keeping people out, walls can do more harm than good as it can discourage the kingdom in question from interacting with the outside world. To this point, the Great Wall of China, constructed in the 3rd century B.C.E, is an excellent case study for Trump’s Wall as it is a monument of human labor that defined Imperial China’s borders for millennia. Built to keep out the barbarian hordes, the wall preserved Chinese independence with a considerable success rate. While invaders such as the Mongols did break through the wall and occupied China, their occupations proved to be temporary with the status quo resuming soon thereafter as it had for years. Besides these temporary invasions, the Great Wall was successful in keeping the Chinese safe and sovereign.
Unfortunately to the Chinese, the Great Wall also proved to be a psychological constraint on Chinese greatness. For most of Chinese history, the people thought of themselves as “The Middle Kingdom,” an advanced civilization that is protected by natural and military barriers. These barriers, one of which was the artificial Great Wall, created a complacency among the Chinese believing it was unnecessary to expand their territory. Apart from receiving tribute from neighboring states and trading with merchants along the Silk Road, the Chinese had little desire to even explore the world preferring to ensure its dominance in their region. The main exception to this rule was Zheng He’s Treasure Fleet which went as far as East Africa bringing back valuable treasures. Yet after these voyages, the Chinese generally abandoned any desire to expand further for hundreds of years. That decision proved fatal as the European powers, undeterred by a weak Chinese government, divided up the country with “Gunboat Diplomacy.” Obviously, the Great Wall didn’t cause Europe to dominate Chinese affairs for decades but it was the mindset the wall promoted- which was to remain peacefully isolated- that disintegrated China’s autonomy until today.
Obviously, China’s political culture is vastly distinct from our political culture but what is striking is that both were originally shaped by isolationism. President Washington’s Farewell Address and the natural barrier of the Atlantic Ocean discouraged the early United States from engaging in foreign wars outside of the Caribbean. Yet that ideology had its limits as was shown in World War I where the US attempted to trade with both the Central Powers and the Allies ironically bringing the country into the war. When the war ended and the League of Nations was established, the United States returned to its tradition of neutrality, arguably stripping the League of any power it could have in preventing Germany, Italy, and Japan from militarily threatening its neighbors. It wasn’t until the middle of World War II when the United States became more involved in international affairs as a newly-minted superpower.
Since World War II, the United States emerged from the isolationist tradition that shaped its foreign policy for over 150 years. With the decline of France and the UK as imperial powers, coupled with the rise of the Soviet Union, the US became the only power that could keep the balance of power between the First and Second World. In response to our new role in global affairs, we developed new systems to bring the world closer to our side, from creating NATO to encouraging lower tariffs through the Bretton Woods Agreement. We also modernized our military chain of command and our intelligence services through establishing the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, and the CIA. These new institutions were built to counter the Soviet Union’s military power without escalation to the level of force that we used in World War Two. While these institutions had many flaws, this system allowed the US to secure its interests overseas to this day.
Now, in reaction to two costly wars, a financial crisis, and the rise of illiberal democracy, the American people voted to restore American isolationism at the expense of losing its global dominance. There is no greater symbol for our new isolationism than the wall as it explicitly states that the US has abandoned the global system we built and kept for over 70 years. Our allies and neighbors see this executive order with immense concern. To our rivals and enemies, including the resurgent China, they are seeing this and are toasting to our demise as a superpower. It is a cruel irony that in the name of “America First,” President Trump is ensuring that our country’s interests are subservient to China’s interests.
It’s understandable that many Americans feel left behind, but building the wall and turning away from our role as a superpower will not ensure American dominance. The reason the United States was so successful post World-War II was because we desired to engage in world affairs ensuring that our nation is critical in ensuring world peace, prosperity, and order. If we truly wish to ensure American dominance, we should not build walls but reinforce our bridges to our allies and to those in need. Yes, we may not always be successful in this regard and there are always risks when dealing with the greater world but we will not become prosperous by closing our doors. Only when we engage the world and work to reinforce our international order can we truly “Make America Great Again.”