When the Berlin Wall fell in the autumn of 1989, it felt like the beginning of a sea change in global geopolitics. Borders were beginning to fade, globalization was starting to take root. The concrete barrier had snaked around one of Europe’s most historic capitals for decades, cleaving a city in two and separating thousands of families, friends, and loved ones basically overnight. When the wall came down, Germany was suddenly on its way toward reunification–and it felt like the rest of the globe couldn’t be far behind.
That movement never came to pass. When the Berlin Wall crumbled that November night three decades ago, there were only 15 border walls in the world. Today there are 70, with 7 more proposed or in progress. Border walls have gone up in places like Hungary, Kenya, and Morocco. And, as you might have heard, Donald Trump’s proposed budget for a 1,600-mile wall along the U.S.-Mexico border has shut down the American government, as politicians argue over whether spending $5 billion on “steel slats” is a worthy use of taxpayer money while crucial infrastructure like bridges and highways crumble.
Far from heralding the end of borders, the fall of the Berlin Wall ushered in a golden era of walls and created a booming industry that specializes in keeping citizens of neighboring countries separated.
Walls, by themselves, don’t do much of anything. They’re easily circumvented and are bulwarks blocking the road less taken; illegal immigration is done mainly through borders that are already heavily guarded. But they’re effective symbols, and politicians understand that there is power in physical metaphor. “When India was building their border fence with Bangladesh, there was someone who said, ‘You know, a wall is the best way to do nothing while looking like you’re doing something,'” Élisabeth Vallet told Fast Company. “If we had to deal with the root problem driving migration, it would have to be addressed by the international community–which doesn’t work well together. Walls are like trying to slap a Band-Aid on cancer.”
Vallet is a professor of geography at the University of Quebec-Montreal, where she studies the impact of physical border walls around the world and the growth of wall construction over the past three decades. She says the beginning of the burgeoning border security market can be traced back to the beginning of a new geopolitical era.
“At the end of the Cold War, the military and different defense industries found their markets short, and they have to rethink their business,” says Vallet. “The Boeings and Thales of the world had huge transformations. They knew they wouldn’t be able to build big weapons like they used to, so they kind of slid gradually towards something that was less about war and more about security.”
Border walls and the companies that build them were born out of peace dividends. If the military-industrial complex was going to be wound down, then it was up to the defense contractors of the world to create a border-industrial complex to take its place.
We’re currently in the middle of a golden era for border wall contractors. Companies are building everything from fences lined with concertina wire to military-grade drones to high-tech lidar sensors to monitor borderlands, and budgets for holistic frontier defenses are ballooning in tandem. The global market for border security technology is expected to grow to nearly $53 billion in the next few years, with major security companies like Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin leading the way.
The last large-scale border barrier project in the United States was initiated by the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which sought to construct 700 miles worth of barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border. More than 650 miles of the fencing system has been completed and a 2008 Government Accountability Office estimate pegged the cost of comprehensive border fencing between $4.8 million and $6.5 million per mile. The Office of Management and Budget’s estimates for Trump’s border wall put the per-mile cost at $24.4 million, almost four times the the cost of the current border fence.
There are a couple of reasons for this: DHS has already built much of the “easier” sections of the border fence in California and Arizona. The federal government owns much of the land along the Mexican border in those states, which eliminates the need for expensive and drawn-out processes like eminent domain compensation and negotiating with the Tohono O’odham Nation, which has said it will not allow the federal government to build a wall on its reservation. Neither complication, according to border expert Reece Jones, has been baked into the estimates provided by the Trump Administration.
“All the places where it’s accessible and on relatively flat ground where you can put a wall pretty easily–those have all been built,” Jones, a professor of geography at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, told Fast Company. “So the places that aren’t fenced are the places that are really remote or are really rugged or are over a mountain range. The wall in those places is going to cost a lot more than it cost the last time around.” Jones adds that “almost all” of the land along the Texas stretch of the border is privately owned, which means that the federal government will have to engage in protracted conversations with folks who own border-adjacent property.
Still, even with the rising price tags there’s no sign that companies aren’t lining up to submit bids for the Trump Administration’s dream wall, or that border wall construction is slowing down around the world.
In 2016, the U.K. finished a one-kilometer border wall in Calais to prevent migrants from hitching rides on trucks entering from the French side. The cost of the wall itself totaled a little more than $4 million, but the total securitization of the border will run the U.K. government another $57.1 million in order to pay for maintenance, detection technology, and more fencing. Israel is planning on building a subterranean 60-kilometer extension of its wall with Palestine at an estimated cost of $570 million, and Israeli construction and defense companies have been at the forefront of exporting their expertise to countries looking to build physical borders, including the United States. (Elbit, an Israeli defense contractor, was awarded a $145.3 million contract by the Department of Homeland Security to develop a “virtual detection system” along sections of the Mexican border.)
“Israel has been a huge producer and exporter of security technologies and security expertise,” Vallet told Fast Company. “They’ve been working with Saudi Arabia, for instance, to transfer the expertise on building border fences and border security. It’s a globalized market.”
The stateside boom in border security doesn’t show any signs of slowing either. Congress has already authorized $20 million for wall prototypes in advance of the potential $5 billion earmark currently being deliberated in Washington. (The United States government has spent nearly $10 billion on border security since 2007.)
“This is a good time to be in the border security business because we don’t make war as much,” says Vallet. “It’s not direct conflict anymore. It’s about risks and how you sell those risks.”
Highlighting and marketing those dangers–whether they’re real or imagined–are why countries like Argentina have floated the idea of building a border wall with Bolivia and Peru, or why India has continued to erect barriers between itself and its myriad northern neighbors. Saudi Arabia has even proposed the idea of digging a canal on its border with Qatar in the shadow of their recent bilateral fracas. The proposed canal would effectively make Qatar into an island nation, a feat of engineering that is sure to be as complex as it is lucrative.
The future of foreign policy is being shaped out of of razor wire and concrete, and the businesses that specialize in segmenting the world are poised to thrive.