A Follow up of my “Open Borders” Series

Two Nations Indivisible:

Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead


Shannon O’Neil


Reviewed By:

Justin Hackney

It seems as though the entire dialogue between the United States and Mexico stems around a chronic problem of Spanish speaking, violent illegals taking the jobs away from taxpaying, law abiding, blue blooded Americans along with a  lasting conflict between drug cartels and innocent bystanders on and around the border of our southern neighbor. However, it is the job of the international affairs scholar to investigate further into these stories as many turn out to be misconstrued, exaggerated, and downright untruthful. “Two Nations Indivisible” is one such investigation by author, Shannon O’Neil, a very qualified consultant on the relations between the two countries. She claims that there is more to the story that is being blasted out on popular media today. She defends her position that there is much to brag about behind the borders of Mexico as well as plenty to worry about during this time she calls “The Crossroads”. Taking us back to the early days of US-Mexican relations, Shannon O’Neil sheds light on the truth behind both nations’ foreign policies as she describes the link between the two as filled with military and diplomatic campaigns juxtaposed by economic ties. She spends time addressing four platforms of interest that include economic relations, political discourse, immigration problems and violence at the border. She argues that the US should lead the future of their relationship to a more open and friendlier bond as it will prove to be advantageous and consistent with our broader liberal agenda and domestic interest. Furthermore, she puts the cards in the hands of Mexican leadership as she asserts that only the people of Mexico can make a real change for the better. This book is very straight forward, telling a story that has been kept in the dark for too long and proves to be an integral part of the studies on US-Mexican affairs.

Shannon O’Neil focuses on the positive side of the US-Mexican story throughout most of her narrative because of the fact that it gets so little attention elsewhere. Nevertheless, there is no way to escape the very real negatives that loom over the border. She uses the Mexican city of Juarez to show this juxtaposition as it was called the “city of the future” by Foreign Direct Investment magazine while maintaining the reputation as the “most violent city in the world” (O’Neil pg. 1). Then she shares her optimism with the reader as she draws on the comparison of the crossroads Mexico faces today with the crossroads Spain faced immediately after World War II. Spain, a middle class economy and advanced democracy, is a shining example of what its former colony could be today, a “Spanish Miracle” (pg. 4). The flipside to this optimism is the threat of Mexico becoming more and more like Afghanistan, a country controlled by violence and drugs (pg. 4). O’Neil stresses the importance to integrate further with our southern neighbor, “leaving behind isolationist tendencies of both nations” (pg. 10). Right off the bat, the author makes herself clear that a more stable and secure Mexico would benefit the United States, whereas an unstable and insecure Mexico would not only dampen bilateral relations, but create a whole host of problems that could be easily avoided.

Even though it seems that education over the history between the United States and Mexico would be inevitable amongst most Americans, as we do share our borders with them, it appears as if this important lesson has been left on the backburner of not only the classroom, but also US foreign policy. Shannon O’Neil takes us back to Mexico’s independence in 1821 when the story officially begins. “The Mexican government – suffering from a perennial shortage of cash, battles between political factions (leading to thirty six governments in twenty-two years), and no national spirit – struggled to develop a coherent policy for its borderlands and even protect its few pioneers” (pg. 15). At this point Mexico makes a terrible mistake in “granting large tracts of land to those willing to swear fealty to the Mexican flag” (pg. 15). Keep in mind that this is the premise to what happened at the Alamo, and we all remember the Alamo. This policy of colonization was capitalized by nearly twenty-five thousand American citizens that became what is now the founders of Texas (pg. 15). Mexicans just remember the Alamo as “radical American immigrants threatening national sovereignty” (pg. 16). Sound familiar? The author narrates a story that recounts the tales of the Mexican American War just ten years after the Alamo, the Gadsen Purchase of 1856 which became America’s Arizona, New Mexico, California, Colorado, Utah, and Kansas, the search for Poncho Villa and much more. She describes a very asymmetrical and bloody relationship between the two countries that seems to be the underlying variable throughout most of our history.

As mentioned before, much of the Mexican story is left untold. Who knew that at one time Mexico was the biggest exporter of gold, copper, zinc, iron, lead, coffee, livestock and beans (pg. 19)? This was the case in the golden years of General Porfirio Diaz’ twenty-seven year old reign during 1884 through 1911 (pg. 19). American investors sent nearly one billion dollars to Mexico’s revamped economy which sped up their modernization manifested in new ventures such as tobacco, beer, textiles, steel, cement, and even dynamite (pg. 19). However Diaz’ reign would come to an end along with the strengthened US relationship. During the course of many of the conflicts mentioned above, the author does not fail to reference the very important distorted economic ties the two nations began to stimulate. For instance, during and after the Mexican Revolution of 1910, American capitalist saw an opportunity to acquire precious natural resources that lay behind the tumultuous border of the Twenties and Thirties (pg. 17).  In the course of American foreign direct investment from companies like Standard Oil, exports of this expensive fuel increased from four million barrels a year in 1910 to over one-hundred and fifty barrels a years in 1920, making Mexico the provider of a quarter of the world’s consumption (pg. 17). It turned out that these American companies did not have the best interest of their Mexican partners in mind when extracting such a commodity. In fact, tensions boiled over in the court rooms of the Mexican Justice Department, whereby verdicts were not complied with and led to the nationalization of the country’s oil by then, President Lázaro Cardenas in 1938 (pg. 18). The fact is that these story remind us that we have exploited our neighbor for years, leaving me to question why Americans are such in arms about what they call an exploitation of our labor markets.

The author addressed this issue that most Americans have feared since the early Nineties, that our position in the world stage in market competitiveness is up for grabs by rising nations like China, Brazil, India and even our Mexican neighbors. In 1909 we see the very first fence being built in order to keep infested cattle out of California, but this idea rapidly became used for control of human traffic (pg. 21). Nearly a decade later, the Great Depression spurs greater fears of labor protection and so began the Border Patrol, used to slow the influx of Mexican immigration (pg. 21). Due to economic downturn in the 1980s, especially in the oil market, and the consequential devaluation of the Mexican peso, the central government could no longer pay the interest on their eighty billion dollar foreign debt which stopped most investment causing the country to suffer from stagflation (pg. 33). Coming out of stagflation ourselves in the late Seventies, the Raegan administration often quoted the US as the “great American job machine” (pg. 34). This was the carrot and stick that Mexicans were dealt in the Eighties, which saw an unprecedented amount of migrants heading north. Furthermore, O’Neil alludes to the fact that there was also a large “demographic bubble” in Mexico during the same time period, which means more able bodied workers were out of work and looking north toward a brighter future (pg. 33). Most people think for some reason that Mexicans are coming to America because they want to, drawing animosity, but the story that the author paints for the reader reminds us that people don’t leave home unless they have to. That assumption lays within Shannon’s argument that the United States should look for a proactive solutions to the immigration problem instead of a reactive solution found in a fence that seemingly waste taxpayer’s hard earned money.

The truth is that huge amounts of people have crossed the Mexican border in the past few decades, flooding the low end job market. Mexican immigrants make up a third of all immigrants in the US which adds up to ten percent of their total population (pg. 35). And forty percent of this number actually came here legally but just decided to stay (pg. 38). It is also gladly pointed out that the total number of migrants pouring into the US divided by the total number of people flowing into Mexico “reached a net zero” in 2011 (pg. 32). One very important report by the Center for American Progress shows how irrational it would be to pursue the approach we have been trying for the past few decades which calls us to find and deport illegal immigrants. This report estimates that it would cost the American taxpayer fifty-seven billion dollars to get the job done, valuing every deportee at twenty-three thousand dollars (pg. 41). This number is eye opening, especially during a time of recession we face today. Shannon even brings up social issues such as the growing number of children left to fend for themselves as their parents get deported. Four and a half million US citizens under the age of sixteen face a very real threat of having their parents sent back to Mexico (pg. 40). Not being the only social problem found with our current foreign policy, the author explains how a stronger border has led to thousands of deaths as people cross much more dangerous terrain and even organized crime (pg. 39). O’Neil does a fantastic job at painting a very intricate picture not yet pictured in the public eye of the immigration dialogue we see today. She argues for reforms to pass in Washington that allows for immigrants to safely and reasonably follow the law towards attaining citizenship.

Money fuels political systems around the world just as it fuels the economy. O’Neil makes the argument that the debt crisis in 1982 began the slow democratization of Mexico as it wasn’t able to pay its eighty billion dollars of foreign debt and began restructuring as a part of negotiations (pg. 60). Because Mexico’s political party was the PRI that time and they operated off of a “corporatist” system, the lack of cash in their banks disallowed them to sponsor any interest of constituencies which held the political order together (pg. 61). If this wasn’t bad enough, a large earthquake hit Mexico City which exposed the government’s inability to react sufficiently (pg. 63). With no help from the United States, and after a few rigged elections in the Eighties and Nineties, Vincent Fox won the presidential election in the turn of the century (pg. 69). The author reports on these elections from both sides of the fence, showing a very uninterested United States and determined Mexico. After Fox, a former executive for the American company of Coca-Cola, beat his competitor by two and a half million votes, The United States did not move to redefine their relationship in any way besides NAFTA which had already happened (pg. 71). O’Neil asserts that this was a crucial time in our history that we should have taken action to capitalize on the momentum of democracy in Mexico.

The monopolies that Mexico has seen in their politics with the long reign of the PRI coincided with further reaching monopolies in the economic dimension. Sectors such as bread, tortillas, cement, soft drinks, sugar and much more are considered ran by monopoly or oligarchs (pg. 87). However, there is still a growing middle class in the country as Mexico is now known for being in the top third for per capita income in the world (pg. 91). What I like about the authors book is that she is consistently defining the variables which she intends to use. Such as middle class, she states many definitions from various institutions like the World Bank. But O’Neil goes as far as using the most restrictive definitions and still makes her points stick as she quotes CONEVAL that claims out of one-hundred and ten million Mexicans there are fifty million poor (pg. 92). Shannon then reasons that these crude numbers still mean there are sixty million that aren’t poor, which is a “fundamental shift from the past” (pg. 92). Not only is the growing middle class a story people never hear about Mexico, but the success of NAFTA has had on the economic relationship between the US and Mexico is generally non-existent. Their economies grew faster than OECD nations, exports from Mexico to US quintupled, US exports to Mexico quadrupled, and there was a thirty percent rise on US manufacturing revenues just to name a few (pg. 96). The author alludes to the positive history of effects of trade between nations. “ from the vast Roman and British empires to the successes of the smaller Nordic trading states and the merchant republic of Lebanon, international exchange has underpinned economic growth and higher standards of living for centuries” (pg. 121). Shannon is extremely systematic with her approach to her argument in that she uses past experience to prove that trade means growth and growth means a middle class that we see happening in Mexico and the US today. This middle class could lead to a more stable democracy as it usually does, which is exactly what prescription our southern neighbor needs in a time filled with drug cartels and violence.

The violence in Mexico is fairly straightforward. However, O’Neil offers the reader some insight that is not found in most studies. “Midday gunfights, brazen assassinations, and gruesome beheadings capture US and Mexican headlines each day” (pg. 124). She then details the origin of such violence. It really came about in the 1980s as the US basically pushed drug cartels from Colombia to Mexico with the ever-rising popularity of cocaine as the fuel in this fundamental change (pg. 126). Shannon refers to defensive realism in that the “hardening” of the Mexican border saw a “beefing up” of cartel militarization (pg. 127). So what Shannon is trying to say is that Operation Hold the Line, Gatekeeper, Safeguard, and Rio Grande all wasted billions of taxpayer’s money by investing in fence, lights, cameras, and manpower because it just provoked what was on the other side (pg. 35). This aggressive reaction against US foreign policy combined with a power vacuum in the cartel itself during 1997 after Juarez kingpin died on the operation table (pg. 2). The point being that there is currently a perfect recipe for violence on the border. Shannon O’Neil provides us all with an inside look on the truth behind what is really going on in Mexico. She definitely cannot escape the current and past events that have shaped US foreign policy today. But she argues that there is more that is coming from our bilateral relationship. A push for stronger economic ties might be the key to reviving political will in Washington to put Mexican development on the forefront of governmental priorities. Stronger ties between the United States and Mexico is clearly beneficial to both parties involved. And O’Neil nails it on the head with her in-depth analysis on the misconstrued linkage of longtime neighbors. A must read for any International affairs student.

Work Cited

O’Neil, Shannon K. Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead. S.l.: Oxford UP, 2014. Print.


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