Editor’s Corner Winter 2011

In These Pages

This issue of Orbis features an array of articles covering a variety of topics. Our first article is Tami Biddle’s discussion of U.S. grand strategy during World War II. Professor Biddle reminds us that the outcome of that great conflict was far from preordained. Instead U.S. and Allied victory was the result of specific decisions made by uncertain, overworked, anxious, and often doubtful policy and decision makers that required them to meet immense challenges, make painful tradeoffs, and assume breathtaking risks.

Colin Dueck also examines U.S. grand strategy, arguing that the country has rarely followed a pure strategic archetype such as containment, integration, regime change, bargaining, or non-intervention.  Instead, he argues, the United States has pursued “hybrid” grand strategies—strategies that vary by time and place, combining the advantages (or disadvantages) of the various strategic archetypes.

Richard Maher contends that it is inevitable that the outsized role of the United States in world politics will decline in the years and decades ahead. He argues counterintuitively that the United States will actually be better off in a multi-polar world than the current one defined by U.S. unipolarity and hegemony.

Zachary Davis examines the concept of “strategic latency,” a condition in which technologies that could provide military (or economic) advantage remain untapped. Why is it that certain ideas and technologies flourish and find rapid acceptance, while other good ideas languish, only to be rediscovered and exploited under other circumstances? What impact does latency have on international security?

Michael Evans provides a magisterial overview of Asian geopolitical patterns—what he calls a blending of power and paradox—assessing such issues as the rise of China and India and the future role of the United States in Asia. Douglas Pfeifer argues that the rise of Chinese naval power is best countered by a “distant blockade,” rather than by the pursuit of high-risk systems designed to “roll back” Chinese anti-access and area-denial weapon systems that some have contended are meant to make the projection of U.S. military power into East Asia costly in the near future.

Efraim Inbar discusses the deterioration of Ankara-Jerusalem relations, arguing that the change reflects a broader reorientation of Turkish foreign policy over the past several years:  a move away from the West and toward Muslim states and non-state groups, including such radical actors as Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.

The final two articles in this issue examine two countries in Latin America, a region that American policymakers ignore at their peril. In the first, Carlos Teixeira looks at the changes in the relationship between the United States and Brazil over the last several years. And in the second, David Danelo reminds us that Mexico is far from a monolith. It is a country of geographic and demographic contrasts that make the application of a “one size fits all” policy counterproductive. This is especially the case with regard to the drug war that has ravaged both Mexico and the southern U.S. border.

Finally, Shawn Powers provides a review essay of several books that examine the geopolitical impact of information flows. Many commentators have noted the importance of information as a component of grand strategy, but Powers focuses on how the control of information by the more powerful Western states has atrophied with the rise of Al Jazeera and other non-Western media. This phenomenon represents a shift in the direction and flow of global communication, and thus geopolitical influence.

Impromptus and Asides: The Geopolitics of Mexico’s Drug Wars

Will Rogers once quipped that it’s not the things we don’t know that get us into trouble but things we do know that just ain’t true. As David Danelo illustrates in his article for this issue, this observation applies in spades to Americans’ perceptions about Mexico.

Americans tend to look at Mexico as if it were a monolith. But the country is geographically and demographically diverse and this has implications not only for Mexico’s internal policy but also for U.S. policy toward Mexico.

As William C. Davis observed in Lone Star Rising, his history of the Texas Revolution, the Spanish colonial system that spawned Mexico was destined to generate multiple and overlapping levels of resentment and unrest. These resentments are still visible today.

Mexico was once known as New Spain, the largest of four Spanish viceroyalties in the New World, stretching from Central America to Oregon. A social system imposed on Mexico from afar still exerts a great deal of influence on the country even today.

In that system, peninsulares, men from Spain ruled in the new world. Beneath them were the creoles, men of Spanish blood born in the new world who could rise and succeed but never achieve the tops rungs of power controlled by Madrid and its new world capital of Havana. Below them were the mestizos, the offspring of Spanish interbreeding with native peoples. And at the lowest rung were the native people themselves.

This race-based social system still plays in the drug wars, which can be seen as the revenge of the natives and mestizos against the ruling class in Mexico. The social system is exacerbated by the country’s geography. Indeed, Mexico’s drug wars can be described as geopolitical in nature.

As Nicholas Spykman once observed, “geography is the most fundamental factor in foreign policy because it is the most permanent.”  The geographic setting imposes distinctive constraints on what a state can do.  Geopolitics is related to geography but is a separate concept: it has been described as “the relation of international political power to the geographical setting” and is concerned with the study of the political and strategic relevance of geography. But geopolitics can be applied to the internal security policy of a state, as well. This is the case with Mexico.

As Danelo observes, it is easy to forget how mountainous Mexico is. Indeed, the key terrain feature of northern Mexico—the center of Mexico’s drug wars—is the Sierra Madre Occidental—known simply as the Sierra Madres because the range is three times the size of Mexico’s other Sierra Madres, Oriental and del Sur.  Although the Sierra Madres have historically been the least stable region in northern Mexico, it has for this region generally offered the greatest political opportunity for security cooperation between Mexico and the United States.

One reason for this is the geopolitical reality that the northern Mexican states, Sonora and Chihuahua, are in some important ways tied more closely to the United States than they are to Mexico City. As Danelo observes, both states have a history of dissension with the Mexican capital and resistance to its imperium. Monterrey, Mexico’s third largest city, is closely linked financially and industrially to Texas.

As Danelo makes clear, the problem for Mexico with regard to the drug cartels is Mexico City’s inability to maintain control over the Sierra Madre of northern Mexico. It is here that the drugs cartels have established sanctuary, in the same way that Geronimo and his band of Apaches did in the 1880s. Like other armed groups that have found sanctuary in remote areas within a state, especially mountain or highlands, e.g. Chinese Communists in Shaanxi, the Cuban revolutionaries in the Sierra Maestre, and anti-Pakistan government insurgents in Waziristan, the drug cartels can operate beyond the ability of the government to deal with them.

In his article, Danelo offers some concrete policy prescriptions for dealing with the drug wars in Mexico. But doing so successfully requires that U.S. policymakers unlearn those things about Mexico that “just ain’t true,” e.g. the view of Mexico as a monolith. Understanding Mexico’s history, geography, and demographics is a good place to start.