The massive misunderstandings that plague the relationship between the United States and Mexico.

The massive misunderstandings that plague the relationship between the United States and Mexico.

The massive misunderstandings that plague the relationship between the United States and Mexico.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 14 2009 6:54 AM

Distant Neighbors

The massive misunderstandings that plague the relationship between the United States and Mexico.

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If you're a Mexican invested in the narrative of an all-powerful American empire, it's hard not to take the current situation as a personal affront. The Obama administration and members of Congress might pat themselves on the back for offering Mexico a helicopter or two to help out, but south of the border there is a perception that if it wanted to, the United States could easily put an end to the northward flow of drugs and the southward flow of cash and guns. Beyond effective policing, how about repealing the Second Amendment and legalizing drugs to solve the problem? The fact that Mexicans can raise such questions in earnest shows what distant neighbors they really are.

The current financial crisis also feeds all sorts of misunderstandings and even conspiracy theories south of the border. How to square this financial crisis, a global contagion that for once was triggered by the United States and is wafting across the border from north to south, with the image of an all-powerful America? In Mexico, the thesis of American decline is not obvious. Surely there must be something else going on, and indeed the fact that it is the Mexican peso, not the American dollar, that has been devaluing—eating away at recent gains in Mexican living standards—seems an indication that when it comes to the coin toss of sharing a border with the United States, it's always going to be "heads they win, tails we lose."


Despite all the failures to communicate, the misunderstandings, the disparity of interest, and the mutual mistrust built into the U.S.-Mexico relationship, the fact is that both countries are fortunate to border each other. Ours is like a stale, neglected marriage whose inherent virtues and strengths are now best appreciated by others. Certainly in Europe, Africa, and Asia, the U.S.-Mexico partnership is perceived as a harmonious, mutually beneficial one. Nowhere else in the world do you find a 2,000-mile boundary between what used to be called the First and Third Worlds, and for all our petty dramas, it is remarkable that there is not more friction.

For all its fatalist paranoia, the proximity to the United States is a huge economic advantage for Mexico, and the country has only itself to blame if it hasn't fully exploited that fact. Moreover, the need to retain its own identity while in the shadows of the United States has enriched and deepened Mexico's own culture in ways that make it deeply admired around the world. The two economies, so integrated now, complement each other, and the United States has reaped tremendous benefits from sharing a border with a growing market for its goods, as well as by serving as a source of needed labor that can seamlessly integrate into the American work force. Other developed economies like Germany and Japan haven't enjoyed such an advantage, and their choices have been to airlift in workers who encounter and trigger far greater cultural tensions or to atrophy in the absence of such inflows.

Americans know so little about Mexico—at least about the parts between Tijuana and Cancún—because they have had the luxury of not paying attention. And we haven't been sufficiently appreciative of that luxury. Generations of Americans have had to learn about the geography and culture of Germany, Korea, Russia, Cuba, Vietnam, and Iraq—and not out of any intellectual curiosity. But Mexico, for all its flaws and contradictions, has been a largely sensible, peaceful partner that shares many of our nation's values and has thus earned itself our neglect. The loud nativist anti-immigration voices in this country like to portray Mexico as a hell on earth, but really, how many other developing nations with a population in excess of 100 million would we prefer to have as a southern neighbor?

Ask Russians, Chinese, or Europeans whether we are fortunate in this respect. Americans quibble over how many Border Patrol guards should police its southern flank, and in the anxiety of the moment there is much talk of mobilizing the National Guard. But this in itself reflects the tremendous luxury geography has afforded the United States, which has never had to deploy vast standing armies to secure its land borders. Of how many other great powers in history can the same be said? I am guessing the answer is in the neighborhood of zero.

So, I still don't know quite what to make of la frontera—both the physical one and the notional one. We are fortunate to share it, if annoyingly unaware of that reality. I don't find the current bull market in concern over Mexico all that reassuring, because it is driven by an overwrought failed-state thesis peddled by the same anti-Mexican voices that scuttled comprehensive immigration reform. If portraying Mexico as another Pakistan is the only way we'll pay attention to our neighbor, then maybe I'll cast my ballot for continued neglect.

What we have here is not a failed state so much as a failed relationship, one that both governments need to address in a sustained, responsible manner in the coming years.

Andres Martinez is a fellow at the New America Foundation. This article was produced with support from the New America Foundation.