The new world we live in today is all about walls – figuratively and literally. While US President Donald Trump talks about building a real wall to keep illegal migrants out, there are walls created by trade protectionism or digital firewalls designed to lock in netizens and keep intruders out.
Foreign policy experts often refer to the global order that emerged after World War II as an ‘architecture’. When Hillary Clinton said in her farewell speech as US secretary of state, “We need a new architecture for this new world... (one) more Frank Gehry than formal Greek”, she was referring to the world’s outmoded political architecture, which resembled the Parthenon in Greece, with clear lines, clear rules, and big institutions as pillars – once remarkably sturdy but not anymore.
Architecture is politics, and politics is architecture. Both are tested and sometimes torn apart by the shifting and accelerating pace of life, pressing against our physical and imagined walls. Sometimes these structures are metaphoric – the fortresses we construct from tariffs, immigration policies, and culture –and other times, they are the real thing.
The current global architecture was shaped by the Great Depression and two devastating World Wars – and it certainly did shape us in return. It gave birth to a world that has little in common with the one by which it was created: China in the 1940s was an isolated, agrarian country torn apart by civil war, and is now a leading global power in everything from artificial intelligence to wireless technologies.
The European Union is fracturing from within, and the United States, which for most of the post-war era was the dominant driver of globalisation, is now neglecting or even leaving some of the multilateral institutions it championed.
At the 2019 Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, we have drafted a blueprint to construct a geopolitical framework that can support this era’s needs. This year’s theme – ‘Globalization 4.0: Shaping a Global Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution’ – will provide the pillars on which we can build.
To serve – and protect
As technological progress accelerates the movement of everything, once powerful structures turn into straitjackets. One of the oldest forms of architecture, the fortress best illustrates the trade-off between openness and closed-ness, which China’s president Xi Jinping emphasised in a 2017 speech at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland:
Pursuing protectionism, he said, “is like locking oneself in a dark room. While wind and rain may be kept outside, that dark room will also block light and air.”
An architect must aim to locate the form they create somewhere between complete blockage and complete passage, between fortress and open square. The chosen point on the sliding scale between closed-ness and openness – between blocking wind and rain and letting in sunshine and air – remains architecture’s most significant trade-off.
In the 1970s, China’s political leaders knocked down the protective economic fortress the country had built, increasingly opening themselves to imports and (limited) foreign investment. With the advent of a connected world over the millennium, they built a new digital firewall that locked their own people within and kept foreigners out of many matters of digital China.
Similarly, the US, which until the 2000s was one of the world’s most vigorous advocates of free trade and global governance, recently pulled the brakes on that policy. Unable to build a fortress around the whole economy, it now seeks to build an actual border wall aimed at curbing the inflow of drugs and people along its southern border.
The act of building and breaking fortresses and walls is utmost political with policy-makers using it as an instrument to shape the flow of people, products, and information. And yet, often those who are building the walls are not those who are tearing them down – but rather those who were meant to be kept out.
Nazi Germany’s ‘Atlantic Wall’ is one example of this from the modern world. Conceived by Hitler’s chief architect Albert Speer, the wall was an extensive system of coastal defensive fortifications built between 1942 and 1944 on the beaches of Normandy and had over 15,000 concrete structures to shelter the Wehrmacht soldiers.
The Atlantic Wall fell the day the allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944; four years of construction and calculation were undone in one day as the wall was unable to withstand the amphibious attack of the Allies on D-Day, in which thousands of men lost their lives. The fortresses of the Atlantic Wall were built to protect, but eventually gave in to the massive mobilisation and acceleration of people and projectiles.
To Paul Virilio, the French cultural theorist and acclaimed chronicler of the Atlantic Wall, the fall not only marked the end of the Nazi regime; it also reflected a deeper shift in the relationship between politics and architecture.
Virilio describes how the once-revered architecture of the Atlantic Wall was outmoded by societal advances. Technology is acceleration. Speed triumphs over structure. If architecture is vulnerable to bombs, it is even more exposed to information passing through doors and walls.
Our world today finds itself again at an inflection point where new technologies, combined with new constellations of power and interests, are pressing hard against political and physical architectures. It’s time to draw up a new blueprint.
The new global architecture
While the post-Cold War age of hyper-globalisation is often associated with the dismantling of walls, it is simply a reconfiguration. While the walls around states became perforated, the market itself became more encased and protected by international regimes and institutions.
The election of Donald Trump, the Brexit vote, and the rise of parties at the extreme ends of the political spectrum around the globe reflect a growing dissatisfaction with this architectural turn.
The European Union – the world’s most radical example of a superstructure replacing national sovereignty – was designed to create more freedom of movement for people, goods, and services, but ended up stifling its citizens.
Similarly, our global architecture is at a breaking point. Five years after Clinton’s speech, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo called again for a new architecture at a conference of the German Marshall Fund. “Every nation – every nation – must honestly acknowledge its responsibilities to its citizens and ask if the current international order serves the good of its people as well as it could,” he said. “And if not, we must ask how we can right it.”
Instead of the more fluid approach suggested by Clinton, Pompeo asserted the primacy of the nation-state’s sovereignty and its right to build walls and fortresses. From Trump’s wall with Mexico and UK prime minister Theresa May’s red line on immigration to Xi’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, politicians seem to be refurbishing medieval fortresses rather than adopting the fluidness of Frank Gehry.
Rather than bemoaning the end of an idealised global order, we must begin by asking what opportunities would get trapped if we just preserved what needs improving. Humanity is not short on big ideas, nor does it lack powerful tools. What it does lack is an architecture for these to scale up for the greater good.
We have no blueprint for such an architecture, but the technology that challenges the old is likely to be at its core. Cities and states won’t disappear, but digital tools will assume many of their mandates.
The political functions of urban gateways or territorial borders are already being augmented – and often supplanted – by digital platforms. Firewalls will replace physical walls, as they already have in many parts of the world.
The rapidly growing centrality of digital platforms in society naturally makes them a central battleground in the quest for mapping and controlling new sovereign spaces beyond nation states.
We have to rely on new tools and methods to reconcile the need for order with the need for greater freedom and flexibility in an age of acceleration.
While Clinton was right about the need for a dynamic mix of materials and structures such as digital technologies, public-private partnerships, and other new instruments beyond traditional diplomacy, she (and an entire generation of globalists) was led astray by the belief that doubling down on new tools and technologies alone could resolve the tension between an encased market and an exposed population.
In Davos this year, our discussions will not focus on how to best maintain the architecture of the past, but instead draw a blueprint for one that will work for the future.
We must take a hard look at the global structures shaping our lives today: Which political pillars are still carrying weight-bearing loads? Which ones are tumbling down? And which structures have become today’s straightjackets? Only then can we develop an architecture that can house the world’s population for decades to come.
This is an edited version of “Shaping global architecture in an era of fortresses and walls”, written by Sebastian Buckup, head of programming, World Economic Forum as part of Quartz Ideas.