Academic journal article Strategic Forum

U.S.-Mexico Defense Relations: An Incompatible Interface

Academic journal article Strategic Forum

U.S.-Mexico Defense Relations: An Incompatible Interface

Article excerpt

The U.S. national security community has begun to pay greater attention to Mexico in 2009. Reports of unprecedented (in recent history, at least) violence related primarily to drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) (1) and speculation regarding the Mexican government's ability to adequately address the deteriorating security situation have reached the attention of the President, National Security Advisor, Director of National Intelligence, Secretary of State, Attorney General, Secretary of Homeland Security, and Secretary of Defense. This escalation of issues beyond the bureaucratic levels that routinely deal with Mexico in the security realm is unusual.

Although U.S. demand unquestionably is a major cause of the trafficking of drugs from south to north through Mexico and of weapons from this side of the border to the DTOs and other criminal groups in Mexico, these realities at first glance would appear to have little to do with classic military matters. In the United States, these issues are dealt with by law enforcement agencies, and the Department of Defense (DOD) plays a limited and supporting role. But within the context of transnational defense and security challenges of the 21st century that confront the Mexican state, and given the central role Mexican armed forces are playing in this war declared by President Felipe Calderon, the issue of the bilateral defense relationship with the United States becomes much more relevant. This is particularly so given public assessments by certain analysts that Mexico is on the verge of becoming a "failed state." (2)

The U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship is rich and dense across a broad swath of the government and private sector, but for reasons peculiar to U.S.-Mexican history, matters related to security in general and defense in particular are traditionally distant. (3) This reality was acknowledged recently by Defense Secretary Robert Gates: "I think we are beginning to be in a position to help the Mexicans more than we have in the past. Some of the old biases against cooperation ... between our militaries ... are being set aside." (4)

The confluence of multiple challenges in early 2009--an international system undergoing shifts in power, the global financial crisis and a U.S. economy in recession, and a change in the U.S. administration, to name but a few--with the security threats in Mexico and the rest of the Western Hemisphere suggests greater attention is needed. Given Mexico's history and the vital role played by its armed forces in providing stability for that country, a review of the U.S.-Mexico bilateral defense relationship is in order. This effort reminds a U.S. audience of the shared history largely ignored north of the border and perhaps excessively recalled to its south; assesses the major structural challenges to improved cooperation between the two countries' military forces; and offers thoughts on ways to work through the incompatible interface.

This term incompatible interface refers to the fact that the armed forces that operate to the north and south of the shared border are quite distinct, and the "connections" between them are incongruent. They both conceive of, send, and receive "signals" in distinct fashions, with neither of the two being "correct" in and of themselves. Despite being neighbors, their origins, circumstances, and shared history have caused them to evolve in different fashions, resulting in quite dissimilar organizational cultures, responsibilities, missions, orientations, and capabilities.

Brief History

While it is unnecessary to explain to a Mexican audience why relations between the armed forces of both countries are strained--virtually every Mexican schoolchild is taught the events of 1836, 1846-1847, 1914, and 1917, the key dates of U.S. interventions against Mexican sovereignty--the reverse is not true in the United States. Only a small percentage of U.S. citizens are aware of what actions the U. …

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