Only a few years ago, security fences along national borders and increased border controls were globally out of fashion. The Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989 by ecstatic East Germans in the non-violent upheaval that heralded the collapse of communism. The security fences that tore Europe in two for 44 years collapsed at the same time as communism crumbled.
A new era of globalism powered by worldwide economic growth and the information-technology revolution followed. New York Times pundit Thomas Friedman heralded the arrival of a supposed "flat Earth." The European Community consolidated itself into the European Union and early in the 21st century its Copenhagen Expansion boosted its size from 350 million people in 15 nations to 450 million in 25 nations.
Internal security barriers within the EU were torn down, and the customs, security and immigration checks on its external perimeter became a joke. France took them more seriously than most other EU nations, but control was theoretical when anyone could walk into neighboring Spain or Italy from North Africa, or even to Greece, and then simply drive or take a train into France from its fellow EU members.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were the dramatic event that started to reverse this global trend. The United States moved fast to start tightening up its security checks and entry procedures. But over the past six years, the huge, virtually unlimited flows of North African and South Asian Muslim immigrants into the EU and of Latin American -- overwhelmingly Mexican -- illegal immigrants into the United States have continued unabated.
Islamist terrorists appear to have been much more successful in taking advantage of the EU's lax security policies to penetrate major Western nations and organize terrorist cells there than they have been in the United States. This is in large part because the scale of U.S. domestic security surveillance and the amount of manpower resources available has been vastly greater in the United States than in the very small and still vastly undermanned European national domestic security services. Also, Islamist terrorists have shown a healthy respect for the toughness and alertness of Mexico's own federal security forces as well as those of the United States.
However, one man single-handedly transformed global security thinking on supposedly useless and obsolete border fences: Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- the man who built the fence that defeated the second Palestinian intifada.
Ironically, for most of his life, Sharon was identified with bold, aggressive and usually highly successful military attacks on both the small and grand scale. He played key roles commanding Israeli forces in major battles in the 1956 and 1967 wars against Egypt, and he was the decisive Israeli commander in defeating the Egyptians in the biggest and most hard-fought conflict of all -- the 1973 Yom Kippur War. As Israeli defense minister in 1982, he was also the driving force behind Israel’s over-ambitious attempt to rewrite the political geography of Lebanon.
Yet it was Sharon, in his old age, who changed the global pattern of strategic thinking about passive defenses and border fences, and gave a huge boost to defense contractors around the world who specialized in providing equipment for such unfashionable but essential functions.
(Next: How Israel's fence changed the world)