The first ideal image of a society was a fortress. The Babylonian story of Gilgamesh praises cities for their sturdy walls. The Old Testament idealizes societies with walls of bronze. Paradise on the inside, walls on the outside, and a failed cosmos around: the appeal of isolationism has been present across the world and throughout history. It particularly characterizes societies on the decline. But here is another lesson from history: walls and isolationism do not work, at least not for long.
Walls and other barriers they try to fix a political situation that cannot be fixed. A first consequence of a society that seeks to retreat behind walls, is that it vacates more of its neighbourhood to the negative influences it is afraid of. It creates a power vacuum so that security threats advance right up to the walls and gates of the decaying society. As long as the walls are manned by soldiers or challengers bought off to remain quiet, the city goes on to consume its prosperity. What’s more, the walls and the soldiers create a false sense of security, immunity even.
While citizens think the world around insecure, or evil, they assume they can hide from it. The more they assume to be safe behind walls or borders, the less they are interested in investing in their defence, and consume their wealth in more pleasant ways. This is what the ancient Greek poet Kallinos meant with “lazing in shabby peace”, Roman historian Sallust with “Fortune turned savage”, or the Chinese historian Liang Qichao with a nation “drugged” by the enjoyment of a false peace. The fortress becomes empty. The walls still stand tall, but inside the society grows mellow. “Decadent”, is the word most commonly used in historical works. In the end, the walls are overrun.
The Western world has reasons to be worried, Europe in particular. There are countless examples of vicious cocktails of climatic change, mass migration, and growing hostility upending prosperous societies. One only has to look south towards the Middle East, Northern Africa, the Sahel. I would not exclude, in the long run, this combination of poverty, disillusionment, and environmental stress to turn more desperate and violent. Just consider what risks refugees already take to cross the seas. Our response today is quite similar to how Ammianus Marcellinus described Rome’s apathy towards the refugees of that time, the Goths.
Walls don’t work. The tendency to hide behind the Mediterranean Sea and to build fences along the outer border imperils the security of the next generations of Europeans. But it is too easy only to criticize the rightists and their fixation with barbed wire, Trump for his wall on the border with Mexico, Orban for his xenophobia. The moderate politicians who have run European politics for decades have failed to implement an effective neighbourhood policy. And it is growing worse. Europe pays billions to authoritarian leaders to keep refugees and terrorists away, but investment in jobs, entrepreneurship, and education neighbouring countries is stagnant.
Sometimes, we heard them promise a Marshall Plan, other times a strategic partnership. But these were slogans. The moderate politicians, those who criticize the right for being protectionist, they might not like walls, but they themselves create smokescreens that are as harmful. They hardly know what to do in response to the Syrian conundrum, the foreign fighters that are still there, to Libya’s anarchy, the forces of anger and desperation that build up in Egypt, or the destabilization of the Sahel. At best, they send some special forces, supporting the French who are completely overstretched. These are fig leaf operations. A genuine strategy that combines security, with economics and politics remains absent.
History holds sobering lessons for Europe. Retreat is self-defeating. What Europe now needs, is the leadership that explains citizens that we must continue to reach out, to expand European influence, to hold on to core values, through more equitable trade, investment, synergy with moderate forces, and entrepreneurs. It needs to reconnect hard, economic, and soft power. Europe must rebuild a sphere of influence, not a sphere of exclusion, but an area in which it offers a convincing alternative to extremism and authoritarianism. Either you help shape the future of your environment, or the environment shapes your future: that too is a recurrent them in the turbulent history of world politics.