Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

[i]Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead[/i] by Shannon O’Neil



Photo: Lars Klove

Click here to view a video interview with Shannon O’Neil.

No relationship in the Western Hemisphere is more critical for the United States than its relationship with Mexico. U.S. security is closely tied to Mexico’s ability (and willingness) to strengthen its legal and judicial system, and to Mexico’s economic potential. And conversely, an improving American economy will have an outsized impact on Mexico’s future development.

In Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead, Shannon K. O’Neil, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, provides both a readable recent history of Mexico and a cogent argument for why U.S. policymakers, business leaders and citizens should care about the future of their southern neighbor. In one of her more compelling passages, she imagines what it would be like if Mexico’s economy were to take off as Spain’s did in the 1980s and 1990s.

Even allowing for Spain’s current economic problems, the point remains a powerful one. If Mexico were to sustain growth over the next two decades, expand incomes, unlock innovation, and get a handle on violence and corruption—all within reach with the right policies—the consequences, O’Neil argues, would be dramatic and mutually beneficial. The two economies and societies are already so interwoven that gains on one side of the border have significant impacts on the other side.

Her analysis parallels a recent report by Christopher Wilson (Working Together: Economic Ties between the United States and Mexico, Wilson Center, 2011), which found that 40 percent of all Mexican exports to the U.S. are produced by U.S. companies based in Mexico. O’Neil takes the point even further, arguing that shared production between the two countries means that “near-shoring,” where components of U.S. manufacturing or services take place in Mexico, is far preferable for U.S. jobs than offshoring, in which the production process migrates to countries farther away. Indeed, Mexico and the U.S. increasingly take part in the same production process, with jobs created on both sides of the border as these companies become more competitive in the global market. “The border today” O’Neil argues, “is a choreographed dance of parts and processes, moving back and forth to create a final competitive product for our own markets and for the world. This dance, it turns out, can be good for U.S. workers and the U.S. economy.”

O’Neil is at her best when she addresses the rise of Mexico’s middle class, now slightly more than half the population. Although she notes the precarious conditions in which many people in the lower ranks of the middle class live, and the plight of the 40 percent of the population who remain poor, she presents a convincing case that Mexico has been moving forward over the past decade at a much faster pace than most observers have recognized. “The magnitude of Mexico’s economic shift is hard to overstate,” she writes. “In the 1990s, seven out of every ten Mexicans were considered poor by the Mexican government’s measures. Today, it is closer to two in five.”

At the same time, O’Neil recognizes that Mexico’s considerable economic achievement has been undermined by poor regulation, persistent monopolies and oligopolies, and weak rule of law—and she warns that unless strategic policy decisions are made, the country’s progress will be affected.

The chapter devoted to public insecurity strikes a note of concern. While O’Neil notes recent positive developments, such as the creation of a robust (if still imperfect) federal police force over the past six years and congressional approval of far-reaching judicial reforms, she points out that these processes have been slow to take root. The murder rate, as of publication, has been dropping gradually for over a year; but O’Neil argues that violence is likely to remain endemic and at high levels until Mexico comes to terms with the shortcomings of its police, prosecutors, courts, and jails—and until the U.S. comes to terms with its drug habits, which supply the profits to Mexico’s mafias. “Focusing solely on Mexico lets the United States ignore its responsibility for the dangers to the south,” she observes.

Finally, the book pays special attention to the binational, cultural, social, and family ties nurtured by immigration. The slowing U.S. economy (and an improving Mexican one), as well as tighter border controls, have contributed to the lowest level of undocumented immigration in four decades. This may, in fact, create an opportunity for both countries to address an issue that has long been a source of friction between them. O’Neil makes a convincing case that the demographic ties between the two countries could become the basis for building a new paradigm of understanding in the future, what she calls “a partnership through people,” by bringing immigration rules “in line with the underlying economic and community realities” that now exist between the two countries.

The book will interest those who are concerned about the future of U.S.-Mexico relations, but it is also an indispensable account of Mexico’s recent history—including its processes of democratic opening and political reform. The author manages to cover in less than 200 pages most of the major developments that have shaped Mexico’s emergence as a democracy and modern economy, as well as the work that needs to be done to make those changes permanent. And the writer’s easy style makes it a quick and accessible—even exciting—read without sacrificing depth.

Watch an AQ Q&A with Shannon O’Neil below.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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