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The Greatest Wall of All

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

A Swiftian Modest Proposal for the President
Or How to Solve the Border and China Problems in One Swell Foop
By Tom Engelhardt

Call me crazy, if you want, but I think I see how to do it!

We have two intractable issues, one intractable president, and an intractable world, but what if it weren't so? What if those two intractable problems could be swept off the table by a single gesture from that same intractable man?

As a start, consider the problem of President Trump's embattled "great, great wall," the one to be built across 1,000 (or is it 2,000?) miles of our southern border, the one that so obsesses him, filling every other hour of his tweet-storming day, the one that a recalcitrant Mexican government refused to pay for, that Congress wouldn't pony up the money for, and that striking percentages of Americans don't want to fund either. As for turning it into a national emergency, that's only going to line the pockets of law firms, not build the "big, fat, beautiful wall" of his dreams. But what if there were a simple solution, an easy-to-make deal that could solve his wall problem, while wiping the other intractable problem that goes by the name of China off the map of American troubles?

Wouldn't that be a geopolitical magic trick of the first order, the art of the deal on a previously unimaginable scale? If your answer is yes, as it would almost have to be, then here's the amazing thing: just a little fresh thinking in Donald Trump's Washington could make it so.

Great, Great Walls in History

With that in mind, let me begin with China and show you just how it could be done. First, a simple question: Historically speaking, what country has had the greatest success building great, great walls? It's a no-brainer, right?

I mean, how long is China's famed Great Wall? Not a mere couple of thousand miles, but more like 13,000 of them (as Donald Trump himself has, in the past, pointed out). Admittedly, the idea of that wall -- if not the actual set of walls built at different moments in history -- was initially conceived of in 220 BC by Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China. And here's the remarkable thing: the construction of various versions of his wall continued, on and off, for almost 2,000 years, into the mid-seventeenth century. Urban legends aside, China's Great Wall is not visible to the naked eye from space, but it's no less impressive for that. It was meant to keep out the nomadic peoples of the Asian steppes and other "barbarians" who might threaten the empire. Admittedly, as will undoubtedly be true of Trump's future great wall (if it's ever built), China's version kept out far less than was advertised. Otherwise, there would never have been either a Mongol or a Manchu dynasty, both founded by invading groups from outside the wall.

Still, that country's Great Wall is a monument to the building and engineering skills of a remarkable imperial power and, even in the twenty-first century, remains a tourist magnet. (More than 10 million people visit it annually.) That, in turn, should appeal to the Donald Trump we all now know so well, the man who clearly would, in the fashion of the Qin emperor, like his name to be highlighted in the history books a couple of thousand years from now. You know, the guy who is eternally eager to give the thumb ("You're fired!") to anyone not willing to make it so (which, of course, means just about everyone).

At the moment, he and his men are deep in a fierce trade war, escalating tariff battles, high-pressure negotiations, and various kinds of semi-militarized struggles with China, a country that, alone on the planet, has a special relationship to great walls. Now, do me a favor: keep all of that in the back of your mind for a moment, while I move on to some history that's a little closer to home.

When it comes to the building of monumental infrastructure of the most tangible sort (rather than that of the virtual world), what country on this planet would you normally look to? In the 1950s or 1960s, it would, of course, have been the United States. In those decades, from superhighways to airports, this country was the planet's infrastructure-building powerhouse.

Almost half a century later, though, it's quite another story. In 2017, for instance, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. infrastructure a D+ on a "report card" it issued. From dams to roads, levees to drinking-water systems, airports to public transit, the situation could hardly have been more dismal. Imagine this: the highest grade, a "B," went to "rail" in a country that has yet to build a single high-speed mile of it (and whose only significant high-speed line in the late planning stages, the one that was to run between San Francisco and Los Angeles, now seems to be going down). China, on the other hand, already has 15,500 miles of high-speed rail and far more planned for the future.

In reality, Americans simply don't invest in infrastructure any more. Our airports generally have a third-world feel to them, our rail lines are sagging, public transportation is generally a joke, highways potholed, and few in Washington seem to give a damn. As of 2019, despite moments of Trumpian braggadocio about a supposed $1.5 trillion infrastructure investment plan -- largely a scam that has yet to arrive in Congress -- the only kind of infrastructure still getting attention is, of course, the president's great wall to nowhere. And if it ever does get started, you might think twice about letting American companies loose on it, given their lack of recent experience with infrastructure construction. All of which leads me back to China.

The Belt, Road, and Wall Initiative?

The president is now knee deep in a trade war with China that couldn't be more threatening. His tariffs (and the tariffs that country slapped on American goods in return) have already hit the Chinese economy in ways that could, in the long run, destabilize it. If so, in what's still a distinctly global economy, the U.S. would undoubtedly be clobbered, too.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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