The Walls We Build

“The Cipher Brief” — Admiral James Stavridis, Supreme Allied Commander at NATO from 2009–2013

“Much of our failures in the dimension of international relations and global security were the result of our propensity to build walls.

Instead of thinking about how we can build bigger and better walls, we should be thinking about how we can build bridges, which will do more in the long term for our security than any other approach.

Think about the vast strategic “walls” of the 20th century: the Hawley Smoot tariffs that were part of the global creation of tariff barriers in the run up to the Great Depression; the trenches of the First World War, overrun easily by the Schlieffen Plan; the failed Maginot Line of the Second World War; the Iron Curtin and its Asian cousin, the Bamboo Curtin; and most iconic of all, the Berlin Wall. How did all those walls work out?

They contributed significantly to two massive World Wars, the Great Depression, and lengthy Cold War. As a general proposition, walls don’t work. They fail tactically (you can go around them, over them, or through them); they fail operationally (by constraining the thinking and imagination of defenders and instilling a false sense of confidence); and they fail strategically (by limiting the opportunities for dialog, negotiation, settlement of disputes, collaboration, and comparative economic advantage).

Instead of thinking about how we can build bigger and better walls, we should be thinking about how we can build bridges, which will do more in the long term for our security than any other approach.

We should begin internationally with a foreign policy that seeks to connect us with allies (through formal treaties), partners (through personnel exchanges, operational exercises, and dialog), and even with our opponents (to modulate military encounters, maintain transparency about what is really happening, and understanding the motivations of others). Even with Russia, with whom we have significant disagreements, we have executed agreements to make sure our ships and planes don’t collide in an inadvertent incidents.

Another important level of bridge building is within our own government. Too often, we encounter gridlock and mistrust, often built on partisan bickering and an inability to put the nation’s interests above individual or party concerns — thus the branches of our government tend to grind to a halt. Even within the branches of government, there is too little cooperation, collaboration, and bridge-building and too much unwarranted competition and backbiting. In the domain of international affairs, ensuring seamless cooperation between the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the US Agency for International Development, and other key actors is crucial; yet you can still feel the walls within the executive branch quite plainly in Washington today.

Perhaps the most important set of bridges we need are between the government (which is not always the enemy of innovation and free-market solutions, but certainly creates a fair amount of drag) and the private sector. Of late, there are encouraging signs of cooperation in a variety of venues, including biotech, cyber security, information sharing, and maritime affairs — but still too little. The Department of Defense has opened an outpost in Silicon Valley and is reaching out for innovation to the private sector through the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUX).

All of this must be undergirded by a culture of strategic communication. The greatest bridge ever constructed isFacebook,which today connects nearly 1.6 billion people around the world. Along with the other social networks, Facebook represents a kind of crude, nascent post-Westphalian system of individual international organization. Will social networks overtake nation states? Probably not anytime soon, but it does present a vibrant opportunity to connect and build bridges between widely disparate populations. It is no surprise that the nations most interested in talking about segmenting the internet (essentially creating walls in cyber space) are repressive regimes like North Korea and Russia.

A final example: these days we hear a lot of loose talk about building a massive wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Here’s a news flash: on the left of any wall you build, however high and strong it may be (and expensive, regardless of who is paying) there is a vast Pacific Ocean that stretches for thousands of miles. On the right of this putative wall are the benign waters of the Gulf of Mexico. You don’t have to be an Admiral to predict that those who want to come badly enough will figure out a way to go around the wall via the sea. A better approach would be to work with our partners and friends in Mexico to enlist their cooperation in securing the shared border, address the conditions both in Mexico and more importantly in Central America that drive the migration, and develop a better and more coherent overall strategic plan than throwing up a wall.

As Ronald Reagan famously said to the Russians decades ago during a speech in Berlin, “tear down this wall.” That is pretty good advice generally in this turbulent 21st century.”

Admiral James Stavridis is Dean at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. He was the 16th Supreme Allied Commander at NATO from 2009–2013. Prior to his duties in Europe, he was Commander of US Southern Command and responsible for military interdiction operations in support of counter-narcotic activities in Latin America and the Caribbean. His most recent book is The Accidental Admiral, a memoir.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.