“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty
As the United States Government shutdown reaches a record length of over three weeks, it’s extraordinary to see the world’s leading superpower immobilised by a domestic issue - building a wall to keep out migrants from central America.
Here is the country which was founded on the principled call above, faced with the embarrassment of a president who is more interested in building walls between nations than building bridges.
So this week, leaving the UK Parliament to struggle with Brexit, we look across the Atlantic at the latest antics of the Trump presidency.
A sudden family tragedy has taken me to Florida, America’s Sunshine State. It’s been a long journey here: nearly nine hours’ flying time, and half of that is flying down the eastern seaboard. As we flew at 36,000 feet, I watched an Ed Balls TV programme on Trump’s America in order to try to make sense of the Trump phenomenon.
Ed Balls met with three groups of Trump supporters: ‘rednecks’, veterans and wrestlers: all the groups were predominantly male and reactionary.
In the United Kingdom, such attitudes would be on the margin; but there is said to be still 25-30% of America who think Trump is doing a good job, and much of his posturing is designed to buttress that support.
The issue over the wall is, of course, not primarily about money: if Trump wanted to, he could find the $5.7 billion himself. It’s about pulling up the drawbridge and declaring Fortress America.
It’s a position which has been taken by many nations at different times. The Chinese built that Great Wall, one of the only human constructions visible from space, and the Israelis have turned wall building into a regular process. I’m particularly keen on short films, and one of my favourites is a mini-musical called ‘West Bank Story’ accessible on iTunes, whose central theme is wall construction and demolition by the opposing sides.
So Trump is following a well-trodden path, even though it’s totally out of character with the founding fathers of America.
However the real problem is that the world does not need an introvert America at this time. There are, of course, areas where others have taken advantage of America: and having the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency has not helped to keep the economy and trade (in particular) in balance. As we commented on 26th November last year, Capital Economics have been drawing attention to the China- US trade imbalance for years, and Trump has been right to take a tough line in addressing these issues.
But we need a global perspective from America, not an isolationist one. If Trump really does want to leave his mark on history, he should focus on building physical bridges rather than physical walls.
And, bearing in mind his affinity with Russia, plus the prospect of opening up the Arctic Ocean to shipping due to Climate Change, perhaps it’s time to look seriously at the Bering Strait: that narrow stretch of water that separates Chukotka from Alaska. Whether it’s a bridge or a tunnel or a combination of both, joining North America and Asia would leave a legacy for Mr Trump which goes at least some way towards that of JFK:putting a man on the moon.
It would, of course, be an undertaking significantly greater than building a wall along the Mexican border, involving new railroads and highways linking Anchorage with Yakutsk and Beijing to re-establish the land bridge of 20,000 years ago. It has been considered in the past, but never has its practicality been so relevant.
Building bridges, not walls - that’s the way forward.
Gavin Oldham OBE