Past, Present and Future Borders of the World

NARP Energy Portfolio Director Rick Van Schoik travelled to University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) and Matamoros, Tamaulipas last week to talk about the “U.S.- Mexico Border Economy in Transition” report, to develop an understanding of binational innovation clusters there with United Brownsville, and also to discuss borders of the world yesterday, today, and tomorrow at the UTB Comparative Borders Conference. He spoke about failed states and their borders, those borders fractured by military aggression, those becoming more fixed, those still fuzzy, those, due to pressures, that are becoming more fluid and flexible, and finally those that are as open, or to continue the alliteration, freer.  He then commented on what all this implied for North American sovereignty and borders.  For example Mexico’s recent change to their constitution means law enforcement officers from the U.S can apply to carry weapons in the course of their duty, another way that the two nations have moved the border away from the border.

North America in the World 2015

Some may think that the meeting between Presidents Obama and Pena Nieto this week served merely as the “other news” besides the Republicans taking control of both chambers of the Congress today. But the U.S. – Mexico relationship, actually much more strategic than most know, has timeliness such that the meeting was of more import and more critically timed than they might realize.

TRADE: NAFTA celebrates its 20th anniversary last year and has truly and overwhelmingly benefitted Fortune 500 companies. Yet most Americans still think NAFTA is a dirty word…largely because they haven’t seen the direct benefits to themselves.  These include not just cheaper prices on commodities we import from Mexico like fresh new electronics and fresh produce but a trickle down of millions of jobs, many in services, from those multinational corporations that jointly manufacture advanced products for the world to consume.  Mexico has more free trade agreements than any other nation meaning our jointly produced, high U.S. content exports benefit nearly every American.

ENERGY: The three North American energy ministers met late in 2014 as Mexico completes the implementation of its energy reform and as petroleum prices crashed worldwide.  These all matter to the U.S.-Mexico relationship facilitating joint manufacturing that will benefit from the cheaper prices available to the entire North American manufacturing platform. At the same time the two nations are working collaboratively to eliminate both health-impacting criteria and greenhouse gases from fossil fuel mixes.

CUBA: The attempt by the U.S to re-establish ties with Cuba really has Mexico as a fulcrum and not just because Americans travel through Mexico to get to Cuba.  The reality is that every south-looking allianceand liaison that Mexico has joined, Cuba has been a member and Mexico is the perfect “go- between” and exemplar for that budding relationship.

MIGRATION: The United States cannot ponder migration without consulting the donor nations and while Mexico is no longer the source of most migrants, it is the route that most migrants choose to arrive from those poorer nations.  As such, consulting Mexico and looking at the highly successful Mexico-Canada migration accord which has been guiding their migration circularity for over a decade, is advised.

EDUCATION: Developing a common workforce regardless of what country they work in is critical to assuring the advanced manufacturing we have developed not only remain competitive worldwide but is able to bring products to market more affordably than other low-income nations.  Beating China at making solar photovoltaic cells is an example.  NARP has published policy briefs on the North American transborder education challenge (“U.S.-Mexico Educational Exchange:Academic Underperformance and a New Diplomatic Opportunity” and “U.S.-Canada Educational Exchange: Academic Alliances and Opportunities” ).

ECONOMICS But no relationship is more important than the economic relationship.  So much so that Vice President Biden chairs the High Level Economic Dialogue between the two countries that is only now finding its feet.  The meeting this week is only the second official get together in over a year and half of talking.  With two years left of this administration many along the border are hoping trade, commerce, and business can continue to dominate the conversation.

SECURITY: But no conversation with Mexico is complete without considering corruption, crime, and violence.  The United States has adopted an attitude of understanding the networks of transnational crime organizations to better share responsibility with Mexico to eliminate those supply chains for drugs, guns, and yes, even humans, who are trafficked.

NORTH AMERICA: As the three North American leaders prepare for their annual summit later this year, it was strategically important that U.S. and Mexico settle binational, bilateral, transborder issues before the three meet.

NARP will remain busy engaging local stakeholders in the process.

Ebola Threat: Manageable or Magnified

Dr. Peter Piot, one of the co-discoverers of the Ebola virus, sounded an alarm back in July warning that a “mega crisis” could occur unless response was comprehensive and swift enough. He was initially criticized for his strong reaction but said he “would rather be accused of overreacting.” He recently reaffirmed his warning, saying he was “on target.”

Now that Ebola is in Europe, I have to wonder how long it will be before politicians want to close the southern border if the virus shows up in the Americas. The Weekly Standard, Department of Defense News reported on Wednesday, “Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, the commander of the U.S. Southern Command, fears that the self-evident ability of the American medical system to successfully cope with Ebola will lead millions of Central American residents to make refugees of themselves and head toward the United States.” Granted, we were caught flatfooted and about three months too late on preventing Ebola from arriving in the United States, but now that it is here and if it arrives in Mexico, then is it not the time to turn to our neighbors, instead of on our neighbors?

Lesson One: React and Respond ASAP to Recover Completely

With all the hysteria about ISIS coming across the southern border into the U.S. and the upped concern about a doubling contraction time of less than three weeks for Ebola in West Africa, perspective for if and when it shows up in Mexico is warranted. During the Influenza scare in Mexico, I remember flying freely from the U.S. to Canada and from the U.S to Mexico. Public safety officials’ concern was not so much who was coming into Mexico infected with influenza—as it had already arrived but rather who might have it and might spread it if they were to leave Mexico.  All passengers were screened by an automated mass thermometer as we approached our gates.  Those of us (and I was one) who had an elevated temperature (a possible early warning of infection) were asked by the technician to undergo a more thorough examination by a nurse and some of us (not me that time) were sent to a doctor.  Indeed, some of us missed our flights and some were detained for treatment. This was a small inconvenience to pay for pandemic vigilance.

During the episode, all schools, many sporting events, and some businesses were closed by the Government of Mexico at a real cost to the nation of millions of dollars of lost productivity.  Again, that was a relatively small price to pay early in the progression of steps to contain a contagious disease that did seem at the time either more transmittable or virulent or both.  Today the U.S. owes Mexico a huge “¡Gracias!” for setting an example, even though nothing more serious than a normal flu season flu ensued. But seemingly for months, the origin was thought to be swine farms in southeastern Mexico.  This proved to be false, but the misperception lingers even today.

Lesson two: Don’t accuse and not assist.

Neighbors look out for each other when their common health or any other security is involved.  When former President Calderon flew to Japan over California and saw widespread wildfires, he immediately called then Governor Schwarzenegger to offer his firefighters.  “Your state is on fire,” he said, “What can I do?”

I often wonder, given the extraordinarily wide charge given to Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) (the ones that clear you to fly when you come back to the U.S. from overseas, not TSA that clears you to fly within the U.S.), if we can expect them to monitor regular migration, drug and contraband trafficking, “first in nation” invasive as well as smuggled plants and animals, and other threats, whether we are asking too much for them to manage crowds of tourists and travelers while anticipating diseases symptoms at the same time. A more effective alternative may be for CBP to communicate and collaborate with their southern counterparts, to insure shared monitoring and equal prevention tactics.

The show must go on

While the necessary steps to prevent the spread of Ebola must be taken and lessons learned from Mexico’s reaction to the last public health scare, our southern border must continue with business as usual. Trade and tourism between the U.S and Mexico is too valuable to be jeopardized.  Measured at over a half trillion (yes with a T) dollars annually, the two industries create and maintain millions of jobs here and there assuring mass net migration stays at zero.  And, as important as the joint advanced manufacturing platform that the three NAFTA nations have built, trade and tourism allows North America to maintain its competitiveness on the world marketplace.

Leaders pass test

The North American Leaders Summit was a success–despite many attempts to paint the new TPP trade deal as an even dirtier word than NAFTA. For many of us, it’s difficult to remember 20 years ago before NAFTA but Mexico had a number of issues of economic and political stability that it does not have today. Part of this can be attributed to NAFTA. While the negotiations and press conference this week showed each nation wanting its own means and ends, the North American region, especially as compared to the trans-Pacific region, won by remaining the most “competitive and dynamic” continent in the world. The dynamism of energy development and subsequent energy security was rarely mentioned but was the subtext to work in other areas, including everything from trade to climate to border cooperation.

The IBWC and climate change

When I taught international relations I often referred to a great model for other nations that the U.S and Mexico invented: the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC).  The IBWC was born when the U.S. and Mexico converted the old International Boundary Commission–which had completed surveys to determine the border and still maintained the border monuments between the two nations–into the more powerful and modernized International Boundary and Water Commission IBWC to adjudicate the 1944 water treaty they had just completed.Today we know so much more about water issues and it’s time for another revision.

At the time it was written, the treaty was the most forward-leaning water treaty in the world in anticipating eventual water shortages and issues. But when the treaty was written to demarcate the waters it did so following a particularly wet period in the southwest. The data used then was the only record of precipitation that we had, so we used it since we knew so little about tree ring and other data sets. We have not since seen a similar wet era since, and forecasts show even drier years ahead under climate change scenarios.

In fact, a few years ago while preparing a paper I accessed the latest models and judged that the U.S. would not meet its treaty obligations to Mexico on the Colorado River about once every three years. By the time the paper was published the likelihood was 9 of 10 years and we approach the first declared and negotiated shortage today.

The IBWC operates with ad hoc and local Technical Advisory Committees and local Citizen Forums (I served on the San Diego forum a decade ago). Neither is permanent or empowered. What has been advocated–and which is something I again call for–is a permanent Science Advisory Board that can sift through local, regional and national water and other environmental data and provide policy options for both sides when it comes to their shared waters and futures. Such a fix is easy, immediate in benefit and overdue.

State of Border Considered

NARP has unveiled and discussed the State of the Border Report to continental and national audiences but is taking both the report and its implications locally. I spoke with local decision makers when I presented the report at the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) borders committee meeting last Friday in San Diego. Local actors understand the border better than the federal capitals and can often interpret and even design optimum solution sets. The comprehensive approach to border issues that NARP affords helps avoid unintended consequences.

Energy Integration

So, I also shared a panel with ex-Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson last week (you can read a recap and watch the full event video here). I was advocating for a North American greenhouse gas exchange strategy so that when North America becomes a energy exporter we will have accommodated the climate threat. But the Secretary-Ambassador-Governor had a few interesting points. He was imagining a NAFTA for energy and a continental renewable portfolio standard (RPS). After all, he was Secretary when OPEC wanted $10/barrel. He believes Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has the “right stuff” to reform PEMEX and only through common standards and policies can we achieve a common grid with our neighbors.

I was impressed.

Border Management

Yesterday I shared the stage with Prof. Robert Pastor, the intellectual father of the big idea of North America and Consul David Fransen from Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to talk about how broken security processing is at the ports of entry are since we have prioritized investment almost exclusively to the distances between the ports over economic security. Among the ideas I shared from the Trilateral Border Symposium we held in the spring were:

  • A common external security perimeter
  • A common customs union and tariff
  • A common greenhouse gas emission reduction credit exchange
  • A common infrastructure investment fund.

We have a common future, so why not arrive there together?