In a move that earned him a standing ovation from his own countrymen and which seems cynically calculated to polarize opinion in the United States, Mexican President Felipe Calderón proclaimed in his state of the nation address:
Mexico does not end at its borders…. We strongly protest the unilateral measures taken by the U.S. Congress and government that have only persecuted and exacerbated the mistreatment of Mexican undocumented workers. The insensitivity toward those who support the U.S. economy and society has only served as an impetus to reinforce the battle … for their rights. … Where there is a Mexican, there is Mexico.
Recall for a moment that el Presidente Calderón is on some pretty shaky political ground in his own nation. He won a squeaker of an election against the leftist candidate López Obrador, whose supporters jammed the plazas of Mexico City for weeks after the election and who have continued to refuse to accept the results, proclaiming that Calderón is a usurper and that their man should have won. Obrador has created and has been maintaining a shadow government ever since. And, truth be told, I for one have difficulty accepting the concept that there was not a wee little bit of corruption in the election, probably on both sides, which would mean simply that Calderón’s machinery was more effective than Obrador’s.
Beyond that, Mexico’s government is still pretty weak, despite six years of generally good stewardship under Calderon’s predecessor. Crime and corruption are down but still significant problems. Drug gangs hold more power than the police and the army in many northern parts of the country. There are still few economic opportunities within Mexico for its underclasses, whose members continue to try to enter el Norte (that means the USA, you ignorant gringo) to find work that they consider lucrative in numbers that a lot of los Norteños find alarming.
One reaction to a perceived lack of political power is shrill rhetoric, and Calderón certainly has given his countrymen (and us) that. And I agree with those who have suggested that the reason this speech was given this way in the first place is to rally domestic political support around el Presidente and away from the shadow government, by making el Norte the big scary Other against whom Mexico requires leadership. Best if we don’t react too strongly to this, although there are sure to be those who will lack the will to restrain themselves.
But if you step back for a moment, there is some real wisdom in something Calderón said — in the first and last sentences of the excerpt above: “Mexico does not end at its borders…. Where there is a Mexican, there is Mexico.” Although Calderón was being nationalistic, the fact of the matter is that this phenomenon is a two-way street. America* does not end at its borders, either. Wherever Americans travel, they take some of America with them.
We have military bases all over the world and we can project our military power anywhere we please. We can enforce our will, crudely, nearly anywhere. To say that we have failed to do so effectively in Iraq is not correct — it was our will that Saddam Hussein be deposed and killed, and lo! it is done. It was our will that a democratic government be put in his place, and that too is done. The criticism of what we have done in Iraq is not the result of a lack of power, but rather a lack of wisdom.
Where we choose to do send many of our people, or where they go on their own, little Americas sprout up organically — places where American culture thrives and spreads, places where English is spoken, hip-hop and country are the music of choice, blue jeans are worn, people read glossy magazines, most people worship Jesus (or at least claim to), and NFL football is a choice topic of conversation. In fact, a lot of those kinds of cultural phenomena happen even where U.S. military power has not been projected. Go to most anywhere in an urbanized area of Europe and Asia. You’ll be able to buy Coca-Cola with your Mastercard and it won’t take too long to find an English-language newspaper or a McDonald’s restaurant. U.S. dollars are preferred to domestic currency almost anywhere in the world that isn’t a Westernized urban area.
Certainly there are geographic borders and demarcations of places where military and police power can be legitimately used. A Mexican policeman in the United States needs the cooperation of local law enforcement to do anything — for instance, if he’s following up on a lead about coyotes or drug runners. So too with the DEA or the INS operating in Mexico. But these kinds of cross-border law enforcement activities do happen, every day. If an U.S. DEA agent makes an arrest in Ciudad Juraez, can we really say that the U.S. does not exist south of the Rio Grande? And if wages are paid to a Mexican worker and sent back to Veracruz, can we really say that the employment relationship is purely within the United States?
So just an idea — although we can draw clear lines on maps and build fences and border checkpoints all we like, might not a vision of the world in which there are really spheres of influence? Like like ink on wet paper, these spheres of influence are strongest at the center and gradually dilute and faded as the capillary action takes the color away from its source. A nation’s military power, its economic strength, its cultural reach, even its vices and its crimes — these things do not know where borders are any more than do wild animals. Especially for those of us who live in proximity to a political border, the influences of neighboring countries are obvious to see. Maybe el Presidente Calderón is on to something.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t have the right to set our immigration and labor policies in a way that is to our own advantage. We are under no obligation to help Mexico or Mexicans other than to the extent that doing so is to our benefit as well. One might suggest that an enlightened and permissive approach to the subject, as opposed to digging a moat and reveling in crypto-racism, would work out to be in our best interests. But that’s a different sort of idea than the one I set out to write about this morning.
* Here, I use the phrase “America” to mean the United States of America, rather than a descriptive term for approximately one-quarter of the land area of the world located on or near the continents of North and South America; I am well aware that Brazilians, for instance, consider themselves “Americans” the same way that Greeks consider themselves “Europeans.”