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Short Note                                                                              23 March 2017

Balls to the Wall    

by Cees Bruggemans          words 720

It is a pilot term, “balls to the wall”, meaning full speed ahead. Its relevance in modern times? There is a global tendency today to fall back on old-fashioned construction work such as walls, to keep unwanted migrants out and the local population protected. And it giving rise to a rising urgency to wall off countries small and large that find themselves on new global migration routes. But this in the face of a rising global demographic wave.

Primitive forms of physical protection are making a massive comeback, a surrender to desperation, a last throw of the dice to address something equally primitive, increasingly large disturbed regions of the world, through war, social tensions and economic distress, setting in motion unprecedented migrants flows seeking access to richer parts of the world in search of a better life for oneself and future generations.


Building walls to keep outsiders out and protect local populations is as old as the hills. Among the surviving remnants today, the oldest is probably the Great Wall of China, meant to resist invading northern barbarians.

Hadrian’s Wall across northern England on the border with modern Scotland was similarly intended in Roman times to keep warlike barbarian tribes from making raids to the south.

In modern times, following WW2, the Russians did something totally different, imposing a comprehensive border wall on Eastern Germany, intend to prevent more of its population from fleeing west. That wall was started in the late 1950s but was already undone by 1989 as Russian Communism collapsed internally and its repressed European satellites regained their freedom, opting to turn their allegiance to the democratic west.

But wall building wasn't at an end. Following the Korean War in 1953, one outcome was a hostile demilitarised border zone separating southern from northern Korea, in its case as a hindrance to renewed military hostilities in the region.

In recent decades, Israel has started to resort to building walls around its Palestinian territories to separate its main population groups, intend on limiting unwanted migrant flows.

In recent years, Turkey has apparently started on a massive wall on its southern borders with Syria, intend to keep out refugees from military conflict and beyond after having already absorbed nearly 3 million refugees, and clearly fearing more future disturbances in the region and in its distant hinterland, and feeling unable to absorb many more millions of fleeing migrants from the region.

Europe in places has started to erect sophisticated fences, in Hungary and bordering neighbours in the Balkan aimed at blocking Middle Eastern migrant streams, and in southern Spain (Gibraltar and Tangier) to keep out unwanted African migrant streams heading north.

With Africa’s population set to double in coming decades, but in many places likely to far outstrip economic development, the fear of even greater population dislocations due to climate change (drought), war and severe economic poverty is a growing reality, one that today is mobilizing large parts of Europe to do more to their south as existing arrangements are proving far too inadequate.

In the US, there have for some decades existed stretches of fencing on her Mexican borders, aimed to slow the illegal immigration stream, but also to some how limit the Latin American inflow of drugs.

Trump is only a modern president having decided to upgrade this fencing effort to a more comprehensive 3200km proper wall, aiming to end illegal immigration and drug flows.

The existence of walls have ultimately not be successful in keeping barbarians out or own populations captive. Northern raiding of southern China did not cease, the Scots kept on coming south periodically, communist populations in Europe kept seeking freedom. Whether modern Turkish, Israeli, and Balkans effort in Europe, and Trump efforts regarding Mexico and the greater Latin America, will be more successful remains to be seen.

Successfully addressing the underlying causes of explosive population migration may ultimately offer greater hope at demographic stabilisation rather than mere proliferation of physical walls.

So end war conditions in the Middle East, and assist economic development in the Near East, large parts of Africa suffering underdevelopment, and assist large parts of Latin America to up their development game and their home ability to absorb their large population surpluses currently left to their own devices.

It could prove more challenging than addressing climate change, and could for long remain a cause of growing friction in large parts of the world.


Cees Bruggemans

Bruggemans & Associates, Consulting Economists



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