Too often, over the past several years, Mexico, which shares a 1,989 mile border with the United States and constitutes its third-largest trading partner, has become the convenient political tool of opportunists on both the Left and Right.
For the American Right, Mexico represents a threat which manifests itself in waves of undocumented workers, who slip under border fences to steal American jobs, commit violent crimes and smuggle in drugs. For the American Left, it symbolizes a tantalizing source of potential future political power in the form of millions of new democratic voters who could, presumably, tip the scales of the electoral college in their favor for a generation.
For Neoliberals of every political persuasion, the country represents a bountiful well of cheap labor with which to compete with and displace lazy, entitled and overpriced American workers, thus dramatically cutting labor costs and increasing corporate profits. These calculations which alternate, in turn, between the lazy and the cynical are unfortunate, as they obscure the important role Mexico actually plays in America’s foreign and domestic interests.
The United States has long had a complicated and fraught relationship with Mexico, much more so than its neighbor Canada to the north. This tension has manifested itself in a variety of strange historical episodes, beginning most notably with the Mexican war, and stretching through General Pershing’s misbegotten adventure to capture Pancho Villa, the infamous Zimmerman telegram, and on down through today’s current immigration crisis that President Trump successfully used as a rhetorical lighting rod to galvanize his base of middle American voters.
Perhaps the most obvious source of this historical tension, aside from the geopolitical circumstances at play in each particular episode, has been the dramatically different cultural origins of each nation. The United States was founded, and would remain ruled by, a semi-aristocratic class of anglophone Protestants who mostly hailed from the British Isles, an origin they shared with their Northern Canadian neighbors.
Mexico, on the other hand, was the product of the colonialism of a Southern European, Catholic, Spanish speaking empire. Hence the table was set for the United States to have a less than optimal relationship with its southern neighbor, especially in light of Protestant America’s long antipathy towards Catholics in general, and Brown Catholics in particular, in addition to the natural border tensions and resentments that arose from the outcome for the Mexican War.
The peculiars of historical accidents aside, the tragedy of U.S.-Mexican relations has much deeper implications than merely moral ones. Rather, the poor relationship between the two nations has also significantly affected the national security of both, in particular, that of the United States.
One of the great ironies of the three decade, Post Cold War campaign of Liberal and Neoconservative led Military interventions abroad, in places like Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan among many others, was how very little economic or strategic interest the United States itself actually had in any of these places. All while it almost totally ignored places right along its own border where it did have very real and very immediate economic and strategic interests.
Mexico stands as the example par excellence of this kind of embarrassingly myopic strategic neglect. Over the past five years Mexico has received approximately $46 million in direct aid from the United States. This may initially sound like a substantial amount, but when you compare it to many other U.S. initiatives, one quickly begins to see it for the tiny and insubstantial sum it actually is.
The estimates for the cost of disastrous and ultimately completely fruitless American war in Iraq alone, not including the military campaign Afghanistan or the wider war on terror, already stretches well into the trillions of dollars. Meanwhile a single F-35 fighter jet still currently costs the U.S. government more than $100 million dollars a plane.
While the leaders of the United States saw fit to galavant in fruitless military interventions across the globe, its southern neighbor has rapidly decayed into its current sorry state and, essentially, morphed into a legitimate failed state. This decay has manifested itself most obviously in the form of Mexico’s current epidemic of cartel fueled violence, violence which for years exactly resulted in more violent deaths than the conflict in Iraq and has. In fact, the drug war in Mexico has now become the world’s second deadliest conflict, behind only the the Syrian Civil war.
The violence, which takes place right over the border from the United States, has destabilized Mexican society to the point where there are now entire sections of the country which are entirely under the control of the cartels as well as some regions which have essentially seceded entirely from both government and cartel control and are now ruled by local militias. This situation is the very definition of failed governance, as the Mexican state has obviously failed in its most basic, and essential mission: maintaining the monopoly on organized violence which is a prerequisite for any functional governance.
Helping the Mexican government regain this basic aspect of their sovereignty should be a top priority for the Trump administration, as many of the negative facets of the current Mexican-U.S. relationship, such as the large numbers of illegal migrants and drugs pouring over the southern border are facilitated by the illegal smuggling networks run by the cartels. These cartels would not exist in their present robust form if the Mexican government was actually able to maintain its proper sovereign authority.
Thus, the most direct and logical way for the current administration to address this issue is for it to pivot away from its current obsession with building a largely symbolic wall which, while quite effective as campaign rhetoric, fails utterly as a practical policy. Instead a new and urgent focus should be placed on significantly increasing financial aid to both the Mexican military and economic sectors, with the aim of stabilizing Mexican society as a whole, as well as crushing the cartels which have created so much havoc, both for the citizens of Mexico and the United States.
Furthermore, the United States should seriously consider deploying elements of the U.S. military, in particular U.S. special forces and drone assets, to directly assist the Mexican military in hunting down and ultimately liquidating Cartel personnel, in a similar manner to the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State.
If the Trump administration is actually serious about addressing the very serious dangers the United States faces along its southern border, it will first have to put aside the jingoistic and simplistic campaign rhetoric that catapulted it to victory, and instead get down to the concrete policies which are the only real way to make both Mexico, and The United States, great again.