We must consider three conditions when we set out to make a coherent and realist Mexico policy.
Mexico is all the rage these days. Bill Barr, former President Trump’s erstwhile attorney general, says we should send the troops in. Writing for The American Conservative, Philip Linderman says we should not. David Frum cannot seem to decide what he wants.
No wonder the interest. Over 2.7 million illegal immigrants passed across the southern border in 2022; 50 million fentanyl pills and 10,000 pounds of fentanyl powder entered by the same route. Fentanyl overdoses accounted for more than 70,000 American deaths that year. Something is clearly wrong; as ever, the question is what is to be done.
The Republicans in the Senate seem intent on impeaching Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of Homeland Security; Vice President Kamala Harris in 2021 went to Guatemala to address “root causes” of the crisis, which meant telling would-be migrants, in an Ianucciesque speech, “Do not come.”
Well, that all is fine. We don’t doubt that Mayorkas is a dithering incompetent, like everyone in his class and profession. We are sure Harris is a dithering incompetent. But merely playing a purely defensive political game is shortsighted—and doesn’t seem to win elections, either. (Remember the content-free “Commitment to America”?)
With a brisk realist breeze blowing through the GOP, it is a good time to move our gaze from Ukraine toward the besetting problems to our south. There are plenty of problems in our own hemisphere; some of them even affect our own citizens. And, for once, thanks to the near complete inaction of the current administration, we don’t seem in danger of slouching into an unintended and unwanted intervention; we may allow prudence and the spirit of James Monroe to guide us to a coherent policy based on a few concrete premises and conditions.
The U.S. has significant interest in Mexico. Most immediately, Mexico is on America’s southern border. Geography overcomes all else; even were America able to build the Wall in all its glory, some volume of people and goods would be able to pass via boat. This is without addressing the potential thwarting of the Wall by drone or other land-based methods.
Mexico and the U.S. are deeply economically implicated. Roughly $100 billion of American capital are invested in Mexico. Despite the worsening conditions for investment in the country, this number is, for better or worse, expected to grow hugely. As America attempts to decouple from China, nearshoring manufacturing to Mexico has many attractions on paper to firms that still do not want to deal with the cost and complication of using American labor. (Efforts to reshore manufacturing to America have had some bumpy moments.)
The evacuation of American capital would merely aggravate our next condition for consideration—Mexico is a weak state. Mexico does not exert sovereignty over the full territory it claims: At various points, entire cities have been wrested from Mexican federal control by the drug cartels. This undercuts Linderman’s claim that Mexico is capable of dealing with the cartels without American help.
The laissez-faire attitude of Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, toward the fentanyl traffic into the U.S. is an expression of this weakness. If he grants that 14,000 pounds of fentanyl are pouring through Mexico into the U.S., he is admitting his incapacity to stop it, or his tacit permission for it to happen—both diplomatic impossibilities.
A premise of international relations is that state actors must be more powerful than non-state actors. It is impossible to conduct diplomacy with pirates, mercenary groups, cartels; if a nation cannot control the territory it claims but instead wrestles for sovereignty with non-state actors, that is a problem for the nation, but also for its neighbors, since it scrambles the normal ways for states to deal with one another and maintain something like tranquil order.
Giving the game away is a patent absurdity: American law enforcement’s involvement in Mexico. By definition, law enforcement can only occur where a political body’s law is in effect. This is instinctively true—we’ve all seen police procedurals where jurisdiction disputes snarl up the plucky detective’s pursuit of justice. The DEA’s involvement in Mexico (and elsewhere) is a tacit admission of some kind of American sovereignty.
Do we think that economic punishments, such as the punitive tariffs proposed by Linderman along with other measures meant to hit the Mexican government in the purse, will be more successful than the sanction regimes inflicted on various bogeymen? And are we sure that these measures won’t just weaken the Mexican state further, aggravating the underlying problems? These questions must be considered seriously.
Finally, Mexico provides opportunities for America’s near-peer rivals. AMLO begging the Chinese for help in controlling the fentanyl traffic through his country is but one illustration of our southern neighbor’s affinity for America’s top rival.
The renationalization of Mexico’s energy sector has cast light upon Chinese involvement in Mexican industry. We have written about Mexican lithium production, which, currently, is controlled by a Chinese corporation as the Mexican government attempts to get its state-backed lithium exploiter off the ground. A joint venture appears to remain a viable option.
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As we have written before, weaponized political tampering follows almost inevitably upon economic entanglement; while it would be foolish for China to attempt to use Mexico the way NATO is using Ukraine, a Chinese-friendly state on our southern border is not the stuff of sound sleep.
Realism and restraint do not preclude the use of force; they merely counsel prudence. John Quincy Adams warned us not to go seeking monsters to slay, but occasionally the monsters are next door—an unspoken corollary of the Monroe doctrine. Nobody thinks the U.S. should have tolerated Soviet missiles in Cuba. But, as Linderman says, recent American military interventions have a bad track record; war should not be waged lightly.
Americans are dying and the public order of the U.S. is threatened because of Mexico’s dysfunction; America’s rivals threaten to exploit Mexico to America’s disadvantage. It is time for our eyes and minds to turn south, and for us to consider Mexico policy beyond the Wall.