Our Neighbors

Carl Friedrich, one of the most important political theoreticians of the XX century, said that “to be an American is an ideal; while to be a Frenchman is a fact”. According to Friedrich, U.S. identity is defined in normative terms, while that of the French is in existential terms. These differences translate into very distinct cosmogonies that exert an impact not only on their own structure and political and governmental organization, but also on their way of acting. Our case is no different. Much of what today characterizes U.S. political debate, economically as well as security- and border-wise, derives from this perspective. The question is how we can further avail ourselves of the bilateral relationship despite these differences.

As Octavio Paz observed with such insight, the differences between Americans and Mexicans transcend the specific. In his words, “The border between Mexico between Mexico and the U.S. is political and historical, not geographical. To cross the border between the two countries is to change civilizations. Americans are the children of the Reformation, and their origins are those of the modern world; we Mexicans are the children of the Spanish empire, the champion of the Counter-Reformation, a movement that opposed the new modernity and failed. Our attitudes toward time clearly express our differences. Americans overvalue the future and worship change; Mexicans hold fast to the image of our pyramids and cathedrals, to values we suppose to be immutable, and to symbols that, like the Virgin of Guadalupe, embody permanence. However, as a counterbalance to their immoderate cult of the future, Americans continually search for their roots and origins; we Mexicans search for ways to modernize our country and open it to the future. The history of Mexico since the end of the 18th century has been the struggle for modernization. It is a struggle that has been frequently tragic and often fruitless. To ignore this is to ignore what Mexico is today, with its economic vicissitudes and the continuous zigzag of its political system”.  As with Friedrich’s observation, the contrast could hardly be greater.

The contrasts are not limited to cultural and philosophical aspects. The Aztec and Maya cosmogony had coalesced centuries before the American Union came into being, even in concept, and this explains many of our disagreements, but none of this has impeded our deepening the relationship nor our leveraging our development by greater proximity to them. What we have not done is to understand them better as a principle for more successful and beneficial integration. Our lack of understanding of their processes, not only on the commercial and economic plane, but above all in how their internal politics and, these days, budgetary matters evolve, is cost-intensive.

In his study on U.S. internal politics*, Samuel Huntington affirms that there is an “American Creed”: “in contrast with the majority of European societies, there is and has been in the U.S. broad consensus with respect to certain basic values and political beliefs”. This fundamental consensus allows for surmounting the differences that daily characterize its frequently acrimonious political process; that is, for Huntington, political polarization in the U.S. is a permanent characteristic that does not weaken its stability because it is the product of its origin and of a political system that prizes competition and the active participation of all of the special interests. From this perspective, the polarization that one can see in their media and political discourse as well as  in the disputes and discussions on issues of enormous transcendence, for them and for us, such as NAFTA, or its budgetary strategy regarding the economic crisis, is real and deep-seated, but does not entail the risk of a breakdown. This, said Seymour Martin Lipset, is a core characteristic of “American exceptionalism”.

If one follows the controversies in terms of these themes (and others that are strictly political, such as that of whether Obama was born in the U.S. or not), the differences are not lesser ones and the viewpoints, exceedingly caustic. In the trade front, which can be appreciated today in debates relative to free trade treaties with Colombia, Panama, and Korea, the issue is much more mundane and, in nearly all cases, reflects specific interests in areas such as unions and businesses, which assume that they would be benefitted or harmed if there were greater commercial opening. The theme of the budget is particularly striking because America’s mightiness has permitted it to evade a profound fiscal adjustment, while it has exhibited an extraordinary incapacity to recognize its predicaments and act accordingly.

The fiscal theme is especially disturbing not only because the health of the U.S. economy is key to our growth, but also because its nonchalant attitude vis-à-vis fiscal balance tends to strengthen the critics of our stability, on which Mexican middle-class viability depends. In the fiscal terrain, the U.S. is grappling with deficits in its GDP of more than 10%, a number that, with the sole exception of 1982, we never surpassed, even in our worst crises.

Those fiscal imbalances in Mexico translated into a split-second collapse of economic activity and into an inevitable fiscal adjustment to restore the financial health of the economy. After several crises, we Mexicans finally learned in 1995 that fiscal disequilibrium produces nothing other than poverty. It is not a coincidence that the Mexican middle class has grown exactly at moments of economic stability: in the fifties and sixties, and from 1995 on. For Americans, their present crisis has no precedent in modern times, which has lead to ranting and raving at both extremes: by those desiring to revive the economy with heightened expenditure, as well as by those seeking a fiscal adjustment without additional taxes. If they take a look at our experience, they would see that adjustment is inevitable and that there is no panacea for taxes. The problem is that their economy is so important for the entire world that they have been able to transfer many of their costs to other countries (for example, in the form of bolstering the peso or the Brazilian real), although it appears evident to me that sooner or later they will pay the consequences.

There is nothing that we can do in these matters and even less so because they are consumed and divided by the latter. However, where we could do a great deal is in cultivating the local populations in which there is greatest opposition to themes that are vital to us, above all trade, migration, and border issues in general. Times of weakness are times of opportunity and much can be gained with a great territorial deployment. This is just what the Mexican Ministry of the Economy did when it identified the products that would be grounds for retaliation on the matter of truck transport. Acting by the principles of the “American Creed” and its liberal, individualistic, egalitarian, and democratic essence at the local level could transform the relationship and the preeminent themes for our development.


*The Promise of Disharmony.