Two Nations Indivisible

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Shannon K. O’Neil. Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

The title gets straight to the heart of the matter. The author’s thesis is that Mexico and the United States have become irrevocably interconnected, although neither public opinion nor public policy have entirely come to terms with that fact. They stand to gain more than they lose from acknowledging their ties and working together on the economic and political issues that affect them both. “Perhaps no other nation affects the United States on a day-to-day basis as much as Mexico. Geography, environment, companies, supply chains, people, communities, beliefs, and cultures bind together the two nations and their futures.”

Shannon O’Neil is Senior Fellow for Latin America studies at the Council for Foreign Relations.

Mexico is a country of 116 million people, the second largest (after Brazil) in Latin America as well as the second largest (after the U.S.) in North America. Public opinion in the U.S. may focus primarily on Mexico’s problems–poverty and drug-related violence–but that misses the bigger picture: “Mexico’s real story today is one of ongoing economic, political, and social transformation led by a rising middle class, increasingly demanding voters, and enterprising individuals and organizations working to change their country from the inside.” O’Neil is not saying that Mexico’s future is assured, but only that it has come far enough to have a decent shot at democracy and prosperity. She describes the country as being at a crossroads, facing two possible futures: “It could evolve into a highly developed democracy such as Spain, or it could deteriorate into a weak and unreliable state, dependent on and hostage to a drug economy, an Afghanistan.”

Which would we rather have as a neighbor sharing a thousand-mile border, a Spain or an Afghanistan? On the one hand the U.S. could have the security of an alliance with a strong democracy and the financial rewards of trade with a strong economy. On the other hand it could have larger waves of poor migrants pouring into the country and prohibitive security expenses. “The troops and resources required to secure the U.S.-Mexico border from drug traffickers, migrants, and terrorists would far outstrip those sent to Afghanistan or Iraq.” O’Neil considers policies based on fear alone unrealistic and counterproductive. Trying to wall ourselves off from Mexico geographically, economically and politically will make it harder for Mexico to become the kind of country the U.S. would prefer it to be.

Historically, the United States has had a very troubled relationship with Mexico, often characterized by political and military dominance, uneven economic benefits, and mutual suspicion. After Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, the U.S. took advantage of its political weakness to acquire large chunks of its territory, including the border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, as well as parts of Colorado, Utah and Kansas. The U.S. intervened in Mexican affairs on a number of occasions, partly to protect its economic interests against interventions from European nations. Mexico was especially open to U.S. investment during the Porfiriata, the long rule of General Porfirio Diaz (1884-1911), resulting in substantial U.S. control over Mexico’s resources, with profits primarily for U.S. businesses and a small Mexican elite. After the civil war that began in 1910, Mexico struggled to regain domestic control over its resources, culminating in the nationalization of the oil industry in 1938.

For much of the twentieth century, relations between the two countries were rather distant and mutually suspicious. The United States allowed Mexicans into the country when it needed their labor, as it did during and after World War II, but excluded them when jobs were scarce, as in the Great Depression. In Mexico, the ruling political party for over seventy years, the PRI, “justified its own excesses as necessary for defending the nation against the ‘Yanquis’ next door.” And yet the forces that would eventually strengthen interconnection were already operating. Mexico relied on U.S. capital investments to modernize the economy. Rapid population growth and displacement from traditional occupations encouraged Mexicans to seek jobs to the north. The bracero guest-worker program (1942-64) allowed millions of Mexicans to establish a foothold in the U.S., which encouraged many others to follow legally or illegally.

The recent history of U.S.-Mexican relations includes new forms of cooperation, but also new insecurities and resistance to closer ties. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) created a path to citizenship for over two million undocumented immigrants. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) signed in 1992 reduced trade barriers, with complex and controversial results to be discussed later. Since 2000, however, security concerns and economic fears have come to the forefront, and U.S. public opinion about Mexico has turned more negative. The comprehensive immigration reform proposed by George W. Bush failed to get through Congress [and the one proposed by Barack Obama also faces serious opposition]. Positions on these issues don’t divide neatly along party lines. On immigration reform, pro-business Republicans are more supportive than culturally conservative Tea Partiers. On free trade, “blue-dog” Democrats are more supportive than pro-labor Democrats concerned about the potential loss of domestic jobs.

Whether the United States stands to gain or lose from closer ties with Mexico depends on what Mexico is believed to offer. If it offers only drugs, violence, economic dependency and subsistence wage labor, then the losses might outweigh the gains. But in O’Neil’s view, that is not the Mexico that is coming to be:

Ask most Americans— and not a few Mexicans— about Mexico and they will emphasize poverty, corruption, and violence. Though not patently false, these views are misleadingly incomplete. Poverty continues, but the middle class now outnumbers the poor. Corruption is widespread, but Mexico is more transparent today than at any time in its past. Violence, though widespread, is still concentrated, and Mexico is taking steps that, if they continue, will stabilize and deepen its democratic rule of law— the building blocks for long-lasting security. Lost in the headlines, Mexico’s real story today is one of fundamental political, economic, and social transformation: from authoritarianism to democracy, from a closed to an open economy, and from a poor society to a middle class nation. Mexico’s hard-fought changes are creating a very different country on the southern U.S. border.

Later posts will explore several aspects of U.S.-Mexican relations in more detail: immigration, economic development, democratization and drug-related violence.


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