The psychology of separation: Border walls, soft power, and international neighborliness –


Studies to date have focused on the impact of border walls on national security, transborder crime, and the environment. This study addresses how border walls affect the way a country is viewed by the citizens of other countries, all else being equal. Using an experimental design that is replicated in the United States, Ireland, and Turkey, we find that the presence of walls on borders harms countries’ international image. This is especially true if the country is known to have been the builder of the wall. Walls also lower evaluations of the bordering countries’ bilateral relationship. Although the presence of a wall increases perceptions of a country’s border security, paradoxically it lowers the perceived security of people within the country.


This study assesses the impact of international border walls on evaluations of countries and on beliefs about bilateral relationships between states. Using a short video, we experimentally manipulate whether a border wall image appears in a broader description of the history and culture of a little-known country. In a third condition, we also indicate which bordering country built the wall. Demographically representative samples from the United States, Ireland, and Turkey responded similarly to these experimental treatments. Compared to a control group, border walls lowered evaluations of the bordering countries. They also signified hostile international relationships to third-party observers. Furthermore, the government of the country responsible for building the wall was evaluated especially negatively. Reactions were consistent regardless of people’s predispositions toward walls in their domestic political context. Our findings have important implications for a country’s attractiveness, or “soft power,” an important component of nonmilitary influence in international relations.


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