Security for All of North America

Abraham F. Lowenthal, professor of international relations at USC, is the founding president of the Pacific Council on International Policy.

One of the Bush administration’s early and welcome priorities was to concentrate on building broader and more constructive relations with Mexico. The new administration rightly recognized that Mexico is America’s second-largest trading partner and by far the main source of immigration to this country.

But the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq radically changed the U.S. stance toward Mexico. Washington’s relations with Mexico, as well as with the rest of the world, were retooled to fight the international war on terrorism and ensure homeland security.

Yet, mainly thinking of Mexico as an ally to help protect our borders from terrorists misses a larger reality. No one wants to minimize the vital importance of protecting Americans from attack, but focusing on Mexico should help us see that homeland security as now conceived is far too narrow. As a result, we may be giving up some added sources of security.

What should homeland security mean? First, homeland -- as a source of both identity and loyalty, and as a defensible perimeter against terrorism -- should encompass all North America, not just the United States. This is not only because, for many millions of Americans, homeland means Mexico and Canada because of origins and ties. It is also because closely working with Canada and Mexico to counter common threats is far more likely to succeed than treating the two nations as if they were part of the threat, to be confronted at the U.S. frontier.


Second, to many Mexican and U.S. citizens, current discussions of homeland security do not include concerns they face, such as: being kidnapped for profit, drug smuggling, death in the course of migration and suffering from the effects of trans-border pollution. These are real security issues, often more vivid to individuals than the scenarios faced by the Pentagon or the Department of Homeland Security.

More fundamentally, any rethinking of homeland security should require a fresh look at the idea of sovereignty. Mexicans don’t want their country to become a mere annex of the United States, which is why they overwhelmingly supported President Vicente Fox’s decision not to identify their country with the U.S. stance on Iraq. Americans don’t want to lose control of their borders either, and consequently many support proposals like California’s Proposition 187, which would have denied undocumented immigrants access to schools and social services.

Yet, such nationalist sentiments are often counterproductive. They hurt Mexico’s ability to attract foreign investment to help develop its energy resources. They threaten to lower the educational quality and health of the U.S. workforce.

Above all, the old notions of sovereignty simply don’t reflect the reality at the border. Long before the adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and especially since then, the rising flow of money, goods, people, ideas and images between the two countries undermined the border’s historical and practical significance. No laws, policies or rhetoric on either side can reverse this powerful fact.


Indeed, the U.S. is so closely tied to Mexico through demography, commerce, investment and proximity that managing our relationship with it is as much domestic as foreign policy. Yet Mexico City and Washington often seem slow to recognize that functional integration is accelerating in North America and that public policies should be tailored to this reality. We should be thinking more about labor rights, identity cards, bilingual education, water management, pollution, hepatitis and tuberculosis, narcotics, police-community relations, energy and a fair distribution of the regional costs of immigration.

There is much more to security than border controls, smart customs procedures and security checks. And there is a lot more to our relationship with Mexico than security, important as that is.