The List

Today's Berlin Walls

The fall of the Berlin Wall united Germany and eliminated the Cold War's most potent symbol. Here are five barriers that continue to divide nations and disrupt lives today. Part of an FP series, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The Israel/Palestine “Separation Barrier”


What: The Israeli government first proposed a physical barrier between Israel and the West Bank in 2002, saying it was necessary to prevent terrorists from entering Israeli territory. It is now more than half complete. Although often referred to as "the wall," in most places the barrier consists of an electronic fence surrounded by trenches and barbed-wire fences and is roughly 60 meters wide.  The barrier has 66 gates, though many are often closed.

How it divides: The most controversial aspect of the barrier is that most of it runs not along the "green line" separating Israel and the West Bank, but through ostensibly Palestinian territory. Palestinians living between the barrier and the green line require permits to remain in their homes. The wall has also been extended in several locations to encompass Israeli settlements on the West Bank, effectively annexing sections of Palestinian territory. The relatively few crossing points, even fewer of which are open at any given time, disrupt cross-border Palestinian trade. The International Court of Justice at the Hague has declared the wall to be in violation of the Geneva Conventions and ordered construction to stop. Like the Berlin Wall, the solid sections of the barrier have become a target for Palestinian graffiti artists. 

Future: Israel has been forced to make several adjustments to the route of the wall due to challenges filed in Israel's Supreme Court. It now expects the wall to be completed next year, though that is already seven years behind schedule.  Thanks to delays and cost overruns on the $2.5 billion project, some analysts now predict it will never be completed.

The U.S.-Mexico border fence

David McNew/Getty Images

What: In 2006, President George W. Bush approved a congressional plan to build 700 miles of fencing in several sections along the U.S.-Mexico border, citing the need to curb illegal immigration. The fence consists of both physical barriers and “virtual fences” of cameras and motion detectors. About 613 miles of fencing have been constructed so far. There have been several congressional proposals in recent years to extend the fence along the entire U.S. border.

How it divides: There are an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States and more than a million people are arrested each year trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. The current round of fence construction was approved over the protests of then Mexican President Vicente Fox -- who likened it to the Berlin Wall and warned that it would damage relations between the two countries -- and border protection agents themselves, who argued that immigrants would simply find new routes. In addition, the fence’s proposed route would divide the territory of several American Indian reservations and disrupt the migratory patterns of a number of animal species.

Future: U.S. President Barack Obama promised to review the current construction plan during his campaign, but has so far made no moves to halt fence construction. A majority of Americans support building a fence along the entire border.

The Korean Demilitarized Zone


What: Running along the 38th parallel that has marked the division between North and South Korea since World War II, the demilitarized zone (DMZ) is, in fact, one of the world's most heavily militarized borders. On either side of the 4 kilometer-wide border, nearly 2 million North and South Korean troops are stationed. 

How it divides: Described by former U.S. President Bill Clinton as "the scariest place on Earth," the DMZ has been mostly peaceful in the five decades since the end of the Korean War, so peaceful, in fact, that the area has become a haven for wildlife, including several endangered species. There has been something of a competition in recent years to see which side can build the most impressive guard posts and fortifications along the DMZ, a contest known as the "skyscraper wars." Although more than 16,000 North Koreans have defected to the South since the end of the Korean War, most of them have chosen to cross into China first, a much less dangerous proposition. The recent, and unusual, defection of a South Korean man to North Korea through the DMZ has prompted Seoul to launch a review of border security.

Future: A recent program allowed some South Koreans to cross the border to meet with relatives, from whom they've been separated since the end of the war. The program was halted after North Korea captured a South Korean fishing boat. For the most part, cross-border contact between the two Koreas remains almost unheard-of and given Kim Jong Il's nuclear provocations, is likely to stay that way.  

The Wagah Border Crossing (India-Pakistan)


What: With the exception of the restive Kashmir region, the India-Pakistan border has remained mostly peaceful for the last six decades. But in Wagah, a divided town that hosts the only road link between India and Pakistan, the bitter division between these two rivals is literally on display every night. At the nightly "retreat ceremony," Indian and Pakistani soldiers parade just inches from each other across the demarcation line before shutting the road for the night and lowering their flags.

What it divides: The partition of India divided communities and families and sent millions fleeing across the border. The two countries have remained in a state of heightened tension over nuclear competition, fighting in the disputed Kashmir region, and more recently, terrorism committed by Pakistani-based militant groups. The insurgency in Kashmir has claimed more than 47,000 lives and, much to the consternation of U.S. authorities, has remained Pakistan's top military priority despite its own growing insurgency. During times of particularly high tension, the border crossing is closed.

Future: Despite the simmering tensions over Kashmir, cross-border trade between the two countries has increased in recent years. As one small sign, the nightly confrontation between the two countries militaries at Wagah has been toned down to make it less aggressive. The guards now end the ceremony with a brief handshake.  

The Great Firewall of China


What: China’s Ministry of Information Industry has set up the world’s largest system of Internet censorship and filtering. Through regulation of the country’s Internet service providers, authorities block users from accessing content on controversial subjects like Tibet or Falun Gong. International sites like the New York Times, BBC, and Wikipedia are also frequently censored. An estimated 40,000 cyberpolice are employed to monitor the country’s Internet users.

What it divides: Not all of today’s Berlin Walls are physical. The world’s largest population of Internet users is still unable to access the entirety of the World Wide Web, stifling public debate and the ability of Chinese citizens to interact with the outside world. China’s efforts to clamp down on online dissent go beyond blocking content. Amnesty International estimates that the country has the world’s highest number of imprisoned cyberdissidents. Other authoritarian regimes like Iran and Burma have begun to take note, employing Chinese methods to control their own growing Internet populations. International companies like Cisco, Yahoo!, and Google have also taken heat for facilitating, and at times even cooperating with, China’s censorship efforts.

Future: Savvy Chinese Internet users have proven extremely adept at circumventing the regime’s Internet controls, using false ISPs and other tricks to deceive the censors. Recently, a “Berlin Twitter Wall” website was set up in Germany, allowing users around the world to post messages in honor of the wall’s 20th anniversary. The site was overwhelmed with Chinese Internet users demanding that Beijing loosen its Web restrictions.

The List

Groundhog Day

Ten stories that appear in the papers again and again, but never seem to actually happen.

“Hamas in talks over releasing Gilad Shalit”


Ever since Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit was taken prisoner in 2006, the militant group Hamas has seemed to delight in dangling the prospect of his release before an anxious Israeli public. Negotiations over Shalit began almost immediately after he was taken. In October 2006, one of the factions holding Shalit reported that they had agreed to Israel's term and were preparing to release Shalit "within days."

Similar reports of "progress" in freeing Shalit have popped up in the Israeli media ever since. Things seemed particularly promising in March 2009 when Israeli negotiators seemed close to a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas at Egyptian-moderated talks, but those too broke down. In September 2009, Israel settled for a video of Shalit in exchange for 20 Palestinian prisoners. Hamas seems in no hurry to give up its most valuable prisoner any time soon.

“North Korea to return to negotiating table”

GREG BAKER/Pool/Getty Images

Since withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1993, and particularly since the first round of "six-party talks" 10 years later, North Korea has excelled at the art of nuclear brinksmanship -- withdrawing from international negotiations and provoking its enemies through missile tests and hostile rhetoric -- then eventually returning to the table, usually in exchange for concessions and aid.

The sixth round of talks appeared to lead to an agreement in 2007, but North Korea failed to follow through on delivering a full accounting of its nuclear stockpile. Since then, Kim Jong Il has at various points promised to return to the negotiating table. Most recently, Kim told visiting Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao that he would consider returning to multilateral talks in October.

"Pakistan finally getting tough with Taliban"


It has long been global conventional wisdom that Pakistan's military is far more preoccupied with its security concerns in Kashmir than in routing the country's Islamist insurgency. But dating back to at least the raid on the Lal Masjid mosque in 2007, U.S. observers have sought out reasons to declare that Pakistan was finally "getting tough," or "getting serious" on terror.

President Obama has welcomed Pakistan's apparent growing recognition that "their biggest threat right now comes internally," and journalists like the Washington Post's David Ignatius have praised Pakistan's "savvy" offensives in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan. Trouble is, the insurgency shows no signs of letting up and the Pakistani military is not exactly falling in line with U.S. security goals.

"Israel preparing military strike against Iran"


In December 2005, then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered his military to prepare for the possibility of a strike on Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities, saying, "We have the ability to deal with this and we're making all the necessary preparations to be ready for such a situation."

Since then it's been regularly reported that Israel was preparing an "imminent" military strike against Iranian facilities, along the lines of its 1981 attack against Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor. Many thought such a strike would occur while Israel still had the "green light" from the Bush administration but the Israeli government's warnings have disappeared away with Obama in office. "Under no circumstances should any option be removed from the table," Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned last week.

"Honduras rivals appear close to deal"

Win McNamee/Getty Images

This is a newcomer on the list, but seems to have the potential for endless repetition. Since the ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, in June, his supporters have been "close to a deal" a number of times, according to mediators from the United Nations and Organization of American States.

On Oct. 30, it was reported that a deal had been reached to allow Zelaya to finish his term, pending a vote from the opposition-controlled congress. While international mediators and observers were quick to hail the breakthrough, plenty of opportunities for the fragile political peace to break down remain between now and national what are sure to be controversial presidential elections on Nov. 29. It remains to be seen whether this latest development was the real thing, or yet another false alarm. 



"Dollar to be replaced as global reserve currency"

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

The greenback has had a tough couple of years, no doubt about it. But some seem inordinately fixated on the possibility that the dollar will be replaced as the global reserve currency. China's Central Bank Governor Zhou Xiaochuan set off the speculation in March by remarking that it was dangerous for the world to rely on one reserve currency.

Now it seems that every G-8, G-20, or OPEC meeting is another occasion for speculation about the dollar's imminent demise. Proto-blogger Matt Drudge seems particularly fixated on the story. Unfortunately for the dollar fatalists, there's little evidence to suggest that the dollar will be dumped any time soon and it's not even clear that it would be such a bad thing if it did happen.

"New Russian president proposing liberal reforms"


Like his predecessor and benefactor Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev came into office as a mystery. Reformers in Russia and the West hoped that the easygoing lawyer would prove to be a more moderate leader than Putin, now the prime minister, proved to be.

While few doubt Putin's ultimate influence, observers continue to speculate that Medvedev will become "his own man", and thanks to a few speeches declaring the need for liberal reforms and speculating about his own future presidential intentions, Kremlinologists have been quick to declare that the two are not so chummy anymore. But apart from a few token gestures -- meeting with friends of murdered human rights activists instead of dismissing them -- there's little evidence to date that Medvedev's liberal program is anything but cheap talk.

"Fidel Castro is dying"


Sooner or later, retired Cuban dictator Fidel Castro will die. But the leader who has outlived the terms of 11 U.S. presidents also seems to constantly overcome predictions of his imminent death.

The aging leader was first rushed to a hospital in July 2006 with internal bleeding and missed some time at the office but eventually returned (rumors that the leader was on death's door had Cuban Americans dancing in the streets in Miami's Little Havana). Since he stepped down in 2008, rumors about Fidel's health have continued to circulate, but the regime still regularly releases photos of the perpetually tracksuit-clad leader meeting visiting dignitaries and looking -- if a bit worn out -- very much alive.

"Momentum on Doha Round"


In 2001, WTO countries committed to a series of measures to open up their agricultural markets to international trade. Since then, however, progress on implementing the Doha reforms has been hard to find.

Dating back to 2003, talks have fallen apart or stalled every year due to the unwillingness of developing countries to cut their tariffs and the reluctance of rich countries to cut their subsidies. Nonetheless, efforts to salvage the Doha dream continue. At nearly every major international summit, world leaders pledge to make the necessary concessions soon. Most recently, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk predicted "significant breakthroughs in the next few weeks and months." Believe it when you see it.

"Israel and Palestinians reach peace deal"


Perhaps the greatest and saddest of all Groundhog Day headlines. In 1994 Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were jointly awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Oslo peace accords and courageously shaking hands on the White House lawn.

Since then, thousands have died on both sides in Israeli military strikes and Palestinian bombings and rocket attacks. Countless summits have taken place during this period, notably the Camp David Summit and the Annapolis Conference. Each time, both sides made bold claims and negotiators -- typically from the United States -- made optimistic predictions. But with the Israelis and Palestinians as far apart as ever, the conflict seems destined to grind on.