When a nation-state has a rather nasty running drug war (that is way more than just a metaphorical drug war), headlines tend to be dominated by all kinds of rough incidents, usually involving murder, beheadings, and other nightmare-inducing stuff. But don’t slag off Mexico. It only looks terrible because people keep talking about how it’s terrible.
Mexico might well have ruled supreme
In 1846-48, the decisive war for control of North America was waged. The United States won, doubled its land size and, at a stroke, halved its nearest rival’s territory. Up until this point, a race was on to see who would be the continent’s hegemon. Both Mexico and the United States were growing, industrializing, and had the potential to dominate all of North America and hence the Western Hemisphere. But in the 1846-48 war, superior American military leadership managed to capture the Mexican capital and overran Mexico’s sparsely populated northern frontier. What would history have been like if General Wilfred Scott’s Mexico City invasion had failed? Possibly, with control of both coasts, it could well have been Mexico, and not the United States, that would rise to superpower status in the 20th century.
Power comes from geography, demography, and resources
And Mexico still has all three in spades. In 1846, the U.S. and Mexico were about evenly matched, except that Mexico had access to both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and the U.S. did not. From an economic perspective, this gave Mexican merchants an advantage in transportation costs. Over time, that could have led to Mexico edging out the U.S. in growth to the point where Mexico could have dominated the U.S. militarily and economically, not the other way around.
The vast reaches of the western territories had the potential to swing matters permanently into America’s favor. Imperialists knew as much – not only would they secure the Pacific Coast for American shipping, but they’d gain all the resources, including timber and minerals, locked up in the Rockies and Cascades, which would fuel the industrial revolution occurring back east. Such territory didn’t need to be developed immediately to be an advantage; simply knowing it could be later on improved America’s chances.
Additionally, the empty spaces of California would provide a decisive demographic advantage, as California could be turned into a breadbasket that could feed surging waves of immigration. It’s no accident that America’s most populous state today is California with the largest GDP in the country. Imagine if Mexico had that edge.
But despite this, Mexico still has the potential to be the most powerful state in Latin America
The only other state that rivals is Brazil, but Brazil is hampered by geographic disadvantages, the first being the lack of two coasts. Mexico can always transport goods to both Europe and Asia cheaper than Brazil. Moreover, Brazil’s territory is still occupied by the Amazon rainforest, which forces Brazil’s population to crowd into slums along its coasts, forcing the Brazilian state to spend more resources than it would like on urban management rather than further development.
Thanks to all these factors, Mexico’s military is the second largest in Latin America – right behind Brazil which, with its recent history of military dictatorship and traditional rivalry with Argentina, has kept an ample force. But to extend Brazil’s power into the Pacific is more expensive and requires greater diplomatic effort. Pacific bases must be secured somewhere on South America’s west coast, something Brazil has yet to do. Mexico has no need; should it ever desire a larger Pacific force, it need only find the appropriate port.
Mexico is also unhindered by long land borders with potentially hostile neighbors. The United States northward has zero interest in further expansion, but forces within Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, Peru, and Colombia may all agitate matters in Brazil itself, forcing it to spend more resources on securing those remote borders. As Brazil develops, these many borders will start to look more and more like a liability.
Mexico also has quick and easy access to the world’s largest economy – a dream of many a middle income country.
Powerful on its own, but standing next to giants can make anyone feel small
Part of the reason Mexico has never developed a large army or navy capable of spreading influence across the Caribbean and Pacific is because its elite know such a thing will be seen as direct challenge to the U.S. The last time Mexico competed, it lost – and Mexico can afford neither a hot nor cold war with the superpower. This has kept Mexican power unrealistically limited and makes it appear weaker than it actually is. Mexico can’t currently stand up to the U.S., but should something happen to American power – like, say, a sudden push for isolationism – it would be Mexico that would be the first to expand into the security gap.
Democratization is having a really positive effect for Mexico, as well
During the Cold War, the U.S. preferred a stable, predictable Mexican government, one that had no potential to fall to the communists (and what a coup that would have been). Mexican elites, wary of yet another U.S. invasion, consolidated power into the Institutional Revolutionary Party (or PRI, using its Spanish name) and ensured every election was rigged in their favor. This kept the U.S. out and reinforced a Mexican political culture based on cauldillos – “big men” who created vast patronage networks and functioned like semi-feudal lords.
But ten years after the Cold War ended and the communists ceased to be a threat, Mexico held its first-ever properly democratic election. The result has been, with each successive electoral cycle, a steady elimination of the corruption and inefficiency that bogged Mexican growth in the 20th century. The Cartel Wars are a symptom of this, as cartels, once part of the PRI’s electoral machinery, are useless in the now-legitimate political contests. The state could not have turned on them in the 1980s because the cartels often provided the foot soldiers of the PRI’s stranglehold on power. But it is now increasingly educated, democratically-appointed bureaucrats accountable to their voters who abhor the cartel’s violence that are the cogs in the state’s machine. As a result, Mexico’s economy is enjoying still strong-growth – a result of the pent-up power within.
The cartels are no threat to the Mexican nation
Unlike security breakdowns in other countries, the cartels are not a symptom of forces that could destroy the Mexican nation itself. They are extraordinarily powerful criminal groups, but that’s all. None of them have political or social programs capable of replacing the Mexican state. None of them even have designs to do so; all they can manage is to slow down Mexico’s growth and take a great deal of innocent people down with them. On a long enough timeline, they will be suppressed and reduced to the same kind of underground status American gangs have. That will take time and lives, but nobody should kid themselves into believing these gangs can take on the full power of the Mexican military.
Mexico’s future will be, as always, tied up in America’s
Mexico will undoubtedly turn into a great power by the end of the 21st century. It’s relationship with the United States will be a deciding factor in how peaceful that rise is. America by the middle point of the century will have a huge number of Mexican-Americans, especially concentrated in the southwest. Will America do what it’s always done and successfully integrate these people into a new national culture? Or will it go down the ineffective and self-defeating path of bigotry, exclusion, and alienation which has always tempted it?
If the former, the U.S. and Mexico will deepen their ties, perhaps going so far as to create a currency and customs union as Mexico’s wealth starts to come on par with America’s. The U.S. will likely keep ensuring security for both, but Mexican forces might end up being integrated into a North American NATO – and being so close, Mexico might one day enjoy a “special relationship” with the U.S. that see its forces deployed in pursuit of the American-led global order.
If the latter, Mexico and America will face conflict, unrest, and perhaps even war, as Mexican-Americans in the U.S. agitate for their rights and a rising Mexico employs its new powers to support them. A second Mexican-American war is not out of the cards, for even if Mexico loses militarily it might still win a political concession if it enjoys world support. Moreover, Mexico could become an ally of any American rival – a nightmare for American strategists. Either way, Mexico’s 21st century will be dependent on how America views it – and if Americans can handle the idea of a wealthy Mexico coming alongside them.
North America is about to get a whole lot more complicated
And the U.S. won’t be able to dominate the continent as readily as it could before. The hinge will be how the U.S. manages Mexico’s rise.