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Do Good Fences Make Good Neighbors? What History Teaches Us about Strategic Barriers and International Security

Do Good Fences Make Good Neighbors? What History Teaches Us about Strategic Barriers and International Security by Brent L. Sterling. Georgetown University Press, 2009, 352 pp. 

The fence along the US–Mexican border and network of conveniently named “separation barriers” between Israel and Palestinian territories on the West Bank and Gaza Strip have become only the most prominent examples of the return of physical fortifications as an important element in the toolkit of contemporary strategic deterrence. The pervasive sense of vulnerability to threats associated with the increased mobility of individuals and goods has urged defense ministries around the world to reinforce national frontiers by erecting barriers to control such movements. Borders have become construed as membranes that eliminate risk by restricting the illicit traffic of people and goods and directing it toward checkpoints where the decision to be allowed in is taken on a case-by-case basis. Such strategic fences have therefore become an important aspect of the creation of a sense of security in an increasingly complex and turbulent world.

According to Brent L. Sterling, however, more often than not the sense of security these barriers instill is false. While frontier fences might address the immediate security concerns emanating from a particular adversary, they do not tackle the origin of the threat. The threats still exists beyond the walls, and if anything the erection of a barrier might have not only increased the resolve of the enemy, but also its frustrations emerging from disruptions to everyday practices as a result of the fortification. Sterling’s suggestion is that what is also required is a complex effort at a “joint defense-accommodation” and “negotiations on realistic terms” (p. 328). Without such attempts at generating an interest in rapprochement, fortifications have little long-term impact on a conflictual relationship.

This proposition does not rest on assessments conducted in a distant academic ivory tower. On the contrary, Sterling, an adjunct lecturer at the School of Foreign Service, has had long experience as a defense analyst both for the Central Intelligence Agency and private contractors. This exposure to the strategic realities of international security underpins his explanation and understanding of the effects and effectiveness of such fortifications. In this respect, Sterling’s analysis does not pretend to propound a “theory of walls” (p. 308) and instead offers a rarely lucid and thoughtful account of the revival of border fences as an important feature of the national security strategies of many countries. In particular, he taps into the unexplored area of comparative historical investigation of strategic defenses to illuminate the consideration of barriers in contemporary and future security practices.

The book provides a detailed parallel assessment of the reasons for the construction, the effectiveness of, and the implications from fortifications by looking at a set of individual examples from antiquity to the present day. Such contextual investigation of the history of security fences details their tactical meanings—either as (1) a protection, which provides a temporary respite from attack; (2) a fortified position, which offers opportunities for ongoing and active deterrence; or (3) a reinforced network for strategic defense, understood as a “continuous or mutually supporting works denying the enemy avenues of attack across a front” (p. 4). While, Sterling’s account focuses on the third aspect of physical barriers, he acknowledges that the interpretation of the strategic utility of the same fortification can be altered with time and with the change of security practices. Thus, while relevant, the quantitative study of the historical experience of border fences has been hampered by the vast variation within the meaning, context, and purpose of such defense systems.

To ensure the tractability and coherence of his inferences, Sterling has conducted a careful selection of the case studies ensuring there is sufficient background information for each individual instance to conduct an in-depth process tracing of frontier defenses. The case studies can be grouped in three distinct historical periods: (1) antiquity, including the Long Walls of Athens and Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britain; (2) the early modern period, to include the Great Wall in China and the seventeenth-century Pré Carré fortification system in northeastern France; and (3) the modern period, including France’s ill-fated and much maligned Maginot Line created in the build up to World War II and Israel’s Bar-Lev Line along the east bank of the Suez Canal to reinforce the defensive effort of the Sinai Peninsula after the Six-Day War with Egypt. The breadth and scope of the case studies allow Sterling to outline the major issues related to the strategic use of fortifications in the security policies of states.

In this respect, the erudite examination presented in the volume responds to a nascent requirement to initiate a process of evaluating the lessons learned from the historical experience of defense barriers and considering their implications to contemporary realities. Sterling’s account offers a much-needed analytical first cut in such an endeavor. This immediately transforms it into a very helpful repository for anyone seeking to pursue such research explorations further. The ability to provide an engaged and perceptive strategic analysis makes this book valuable to all those working on and dealing with the shifting patterns of defense policy. Sterling’s volume will therefore be appreciated both by students and scholars of strategic studies, international history, international relations, and security studies. At the same time, his inferences will be of great interest to defense and security analysts as well as to policymakers.

Emilian R. Kavalski, PhD

University of Western Sydney, Australia

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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