Republicans Want a War Against Drug Cartels in Mexico. That’s A Bad Idea

Republicans are once again calling for military action against Mexico. Cross-border raids, the argument goes, could badly damage the strongest Mexican drug cartels and cut the traffic of fentanyl and other substances. 


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Designating the cartels as terrorist organizations would provide the legal foundation for the attacks, which would likely be conducted with or without the permission of the Mexican government. These ideas have been fulminating since the early days of the Trump administration, representing a clumsy way to demonstrate toughness on the nearly intractable problem of opioid overdose deaths in the United States. That the primary victims of the attacks would be Mexicans, a population that has long been the target of Trump’s ire, is presumably a fringe benefit. 


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President Trump has only a limited understanding of the mechanics of military force, and of course there is little reason to believe that missile strikes or cross-border raids would either destroy the capacity of the cartels to bring drugs across the border or force the Mexican government to crack down.

However, they would almost certainly wreck the peaceful relationship that the United States and Mexico have had for over a century. 

History of Fighting, History of Peace

The first century of Mexico’s independence witnessed repeated conflict with the northern neighbor, most notably the War of Texas Independence and the Mexican-American War, which resulted in the US annexing a vast swath of Mexican territory.

After repeated violence during the Mexican Revolution, however, the US and Mexican governments resolved most of their differences and developed ways of managing future relations. Mexico joined the US in World War II, although most of its contributions involved labor and trade. 

This long, peaceful relationship has enabled Mexico to pursue a remarkably unusual national security policy. Mexico devotes .677% of its GDP to defense, which is extremely low. In terms of equipment, the Mexican armed forces are severely undercapitalized. The fighter fleet of the Mexican Air Force consists of three F-5Es. Three. The primary combat vessels of the Mexican Navy are mostly in excess of fifty years old. The primary military tasks of the Mexican armed forces are internal; fighting insurgents, and managing (in various ways) the drug trade. Mexico does not participate widely in UN peacekeeping missions or make substantial military contributions to regional multilateral operations, such as Haitian earthquake relief. Mexico stands out in comparison to Canada, which despite having a quarter of the population and a smaller economy, manages to spend twice as much on defense in raw, non-PPP adjusted terms. It stands out in contrast to other Latin American countries of similar economic and demographic stature, such as Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, or Brazil.

The explanation for Mexico’s unusual national security policy seems straightforward. Mexico cannot hope to build a military capable of resisting the United States, much less protecting its emigrant populations or recovering lost territories. At the same time, no state other than the US can plausibly threaten Mexico’s security. Consequently, Mexico can afford to have a very small defense budget and a non-activist foreign policy. 

As an explanation for Mexican security policy, that’s fine as far as it goes, but it only goes so far. Canada has historically adopted a much more activist military and foreign policy. Ukraine and Poland most certainly have not adopted “Mexican” strategies with respect to Russia, instead preferring internal and external balancing. Vietnam has constructed its security policy around measured resistance to China, rather than accommodation. It is better to think of Mexico’s accommodationist security policy as a choice. It is almost certainly a good choice; antagonism would cost more and invite more extensive US intervention, internal balancing (military buildup) would cost a lot more, external balancing (alliance with foreign powers) is extremely difficult on the multilateral side and not all that productive even in bilateral terms. But Mexico is large enough and wealthy enough to consider alternative choices.

Mexico’s accommodationist strategy also places some obligations on the United States. These include decent treatment of the Mexican diaspora, an end to efforts to chip away at Mexico’s territory, a minimum of active subversion of the Mexican government, a degree of respect for Mexican sovereignty, and a degree of protection against the military or subversive ends of foreign powers. As long as these obligations are met (in broad terms), the United States gets a deal; it does not have to worry, at all, about the large, wealthy, potentially powerful country with latent but compelling irredentist claims along its southern border.

Don’t Change Mexico Policy 

If I were in a senior policymaking position in the United States government, one of my central objectives would be to enable Mexico to continue to pursue a minimal defense policy. Mexico is not a poor country, and can afford to expend a much greater portion of its economy on defense. Mexico can afford a lot of Russian Su-27s and MiG-29s, or Saab Gripens, or Eurofighter Typhoons, or Chengdu J-10s. It can afford to upgrade its navy with submarines and modern surface warfare vessels, including missile-armed patrol boats that would give the U.S. Navy headaches. It can afford to suspend or modify various cooperative security programs with the United States.

Mexico probably won’t do any of these things, partially because of inertia, and partially because military balancing would require a major resource allocation. But then previous US Presidents have tended to shy away from hinting at strikes against Mexican or pogroms against the Mexican diaspora. The United States does not want a Ukraine-shaped problem on its southern border with Mexico, yet Trump’s foreign policy would go a long way towards making that problem a reality. 

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020), and most recently Waging War with Gold: National Security and the Finance Domain Across the Ages (Lynne Rienner, 2023). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money. He is a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

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