The Border Is Vanishing

By Kaplan, Robert D. | Newsweek International, September 17, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Border Is Vanishing


Kaplan, Robert D., Newsweek International


Byline: Robert D. Kaplan

Like it or not, Mexico is pushing north into the United States. A look at the future, from a new book by Robert D. Kaplan

America's foreign policy emanates from the domestic condition of its society, and nothing will affect that society more than the dramatic movement of Latino history northward. Mexico's 111 million people plus Central America's 40 million add up to half the population of the United States. Eighty-five percent of all Mexico's exports go to the United States, even as half of all Central America's trade is with the U.S. While the median age of Americans is nearly 37, the median age is 25 in Mexico and even lower in Central America (20 in Guatemala and Honduras, for example). The destiny of the United States will be north-south, rather than the east-west "sea to shining sea" of continental and patriotic myth.

Half the length of America's southern frontier is an artificial line in the desert, established by treaties following the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. I have described before how crossing this border, having traveled by bus north from Mexico City, was as much of a shock for me as crossing the Jordan-Israel border and the Berlin Wall. Surrounded by beggars on the broken sidewalk of Nogales, Sonora, I stared at the American flag indicating the border. The pedestrian crossing point to Nogales, Ariz., was in a small building. Merely by touching the door handle, I entered a new physical world. The solidly constructed handle with its high-quality metal, the clean glass, and the precise manner in which the room's ceramic tiles were fitted seemed a revelation after weeks amid slipshod Mexican construction.

There were only two people in the room: an immigration official and a customs official. Neither talked to the other. In government enclosures of that size in Mexico and other Third World countries, there were always crowds of officials and hangers-on, lost in animated conversation. Soon, as in Israel, I was inside a perfectly standardized yet cold and alienating environment, with empty streets and the store logos made of tony polymers rather than of rusted metal and cheap plastic. After weeks of turbulence and semi-anarchy, these quiet streets appeared vulnerable, unnatural even. Arnold Toynbee writes, in reference to the barbarians and Rome, that when a frontier between a highly and less highly developed society "ceases to advance, the balance does not settle down to a stable equilibrium but inclines, with the passage of time, in the more backward society's favor."

Since 1940, Mexico's population has risen more than fivefold. Today it has swelled to more than a third the population of the United States, and it continues to grow at a faster rate. East Coast elites display relatively little interest in Mexico, focusing instead on the wider world and America's place in it. America's southern neighbor registers far less in the elite imagination than does Israel or China, or India even. Yet Mexico could affect America's destiny more than any of those countries.

Mexico exhibits no geographical unity. Two great mountain ranges, the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Sierra Madre Oriental, lie on either side of a rugged central plateau. Then there are other, crosscutting mountain ranges, mainly in the south: the Sierra Madre del Sur, the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca, and so on. Mexico is so mountainous that if it were flattened, it would be the size of Asia. The Yucatan Peninsula and Baja California are both essentially separate from the rest of Mexico, which is itself infernally divided. This is the context to understand northern Mexico's ongoing, undeclared, substantially unreported, and undeniable unification with the southwestern United States and consequent separation from the rest of Mexico.

Northern Mexico's population has more than doubled since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994. The U.S. dollar is now a common unit of exchange as far south as Culiacan, halfway to Mexico City. …

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