Thursday, May 09, 2013

Shannon O'Neil's Two Nations Indivisible

It is very hard to say something new or original about U.S.-Mexican relations (as is the case with U.S.-Cuban relations). Books and articles are churned out at a rapid pace, all with variations on a "we're partners and need each other whether we like it or not" theme, with a laundry list of things to do. What Shannon O'Neil does in Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead (2013) is to carve a niche she had been showing on her blog and elsewhere. Her take looks primarily at the way in which Mexico is perceived in the United States.

Basically, she argues that Mexico is ascending, but that too few in the United States recognize this. Instead, they are stuck on the idea of a backwards country on the road to nowhere. Instead, there is a strong economy and growing middle class, a persistent expansion of democracy, and a highly cosmopolitan population. She makes this argument through a narrative that takes care not to exaggerate claims (and places drug-related violence in perspective). It takes the reader through economic reforms, the fall of the PRI, and the cracking of soft authoritarianism, all of which make Mexico a very different place than it was just a short time ago.

The policy prescriptions that flow from the narrative aren't really new, but those aren't really the point of the book. Instead, the idea is that the relationship can't move forward productively until false images are dispelled. Ultimately, the vast majority of Americans don't know Mexico much at all. And I would wager that many think they understand Mexico when in fact they don't.

Toward the end she mentions a trip she took with House and Senate staffers to Mexico City, and how they expressed surprise at how nice the city was, even more impressive than the places they came from. Getting over that hurdle, she argues, will help policy a lot. This makes sense, as the pervasive popular image is a Mexico of dirt streets and ragged children. They do exist, but more and more Mexicans are equally educated and prosperous as their northern counterparts.

I've cautioned before about overly optimistic views of the middle class in Latin America. Aside from measurement questions, aggregate figures can obscure the number of people who are on the brink of falling back. But O'Neil provides plenty of evidence for her glass-half-full perspective perspective. In the end, the book plus a trip to Mexico would be a good thing for most members of Congress and their staffers.


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