Anecdotes in Search of a (North) American Federation

This piece is structured like a German sentence, in which the verb often comes at the end. Here, it is the theme that comes at the end! (This article  is derived from a presentation the SMA Town Hall on 6 May 2021. You can watch the video of this presentation at the end of the article.[1])

By Gregory F. Treverton

NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SMA, Inc.

I first got to know Mexico seriously when I was an intern, when we still used that term, for IBM in Mexico in the late 1960s. For New York headquarters, my assignment was a high-minded effort to convince a promising young person of the company’s value. For IBM Mexico, I was simply a body. When I was asked what I wanted to do, I said I was interested in economics, so they assigned me to the strategic planner. He was a wonderful, jovial character, a central European who was about to become an American, his fifth citizenship. (His wife was stolidly Swiss and quipped that she wasn’t about to change her nationality every time she changed her shirt.)

I had learned what nice people Mexicans were, and I had also learned that they regarded it as bad manners to be asked a question and reply “I don’t know.” So, asking for directions on the street meant triangulating among three different people. It was the same when I asked Mexican colleagues for numbers relevant to planning, all the more so because the company was growing like topsy. And thus, I spent my days at a huge old-fashioned adding machine manipulating numbers that were almost entirely meaningless. It probably ruined me forever for the for-profit private sector!

On one occasion, we had prepared a report for the company board, and were about to deliver it. Before I could stop him, my boss knocked on the board room door with the “shave and a haircut two bits” rhythm. For those of you who don’t swear in Spanish, this roughly translates as “F*** your mother, dumb-ass.” Doing it on your car horn would earn you a fine. Needless to say, when we opened the door, the Mexicans were falling out of their chairs with laughter.

My second anecdote is stopping at the Hilton across the street from my office, where I would sneak a read of newspapers in English. While sitting there, I overheard a conversation between two American women of a certain age. One said: “I had an experience today that could have been horrible but turned into a good one. I was stopped by a policeman who said I had done something wrong. I wasn’t quite sure what it was. But he was so nice and said, not to worry, I didn’t need to go downtown to pay the fine, I could just give the money to him and he’d pay it.” Sometimes cultural miscommunication pays off, literally in this case!

Fast forward a number of years to North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or what we now call United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). (It seems we have changed one acronym that sounded like something you spray on bugs to another that suggests nasal problems.) In any event, NAFTA seemed to me a turning point for Mexico. As the quote from Porfirio Díaz, the soldier and later president, has it: “Pity the poor Mexicans, so far from God and so close to the United States.” With NAFTA, the Mexicans decided that if they couldn’t get closer to God or further from United States, they should join up and try to enjoy the benefits of their big neighbor. It was a major strategic decision.

That’s my third anecdote. At a conference in Mexico City in the early 2000s, I came across Mexico’s best political scientist and a senior Mexican diplomat having a coffee conversation, in English! That would’ve been unimaginable 20 years before. Then, the Mexican elite tended to look toward Europe and could be more than faintly condescending toward Americans. I knew Mexico had changed.

Mexicans who opposed NAFTA, like my friend, former foreign minister Jorge Castañeda Gutman, did so because it didn’t go far enough: they would have liked arrangements like those of the European Union in which the richer countries provide structural adjustment funding to the poorer ones—in this case, from the United States (and Canada) to Mexico. They sought something closer to a North American federation.

That didn’t happen, but still NAFTA can be counted as a success. It tripled trade among the three countries, and controlled migration: the numbers of Mexicans coming to the United States has ticked up recently, but the past few years have seen net out-migration, with more Mexicans returning home than coming here.

My final anecdote is Central America. I first got to know it on a fact-finding mission during the Contra wars of the 1980s. The group was Bostonians, including the author Doris Kearns Goodwin, and her husband, Dick (whom I had a few years earlier subpoena-ed for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, but no hard feelings!), and the former managing editor of the Washington Post, Howard Simons (who knew he was dying but maintained his famous sense of humor: “At least I don’t have to worry about skin cancer at the beach this summer.”) Our organizers were two young political advance men reared in Boston politics. It was perfectly easy to imagine them passing out ten-dollar bills to would-be voters. They didn’t speak Spanish but didn’t take “no” for an answer in any language, and so, fresh, or rather not so fresh, from a rain forest hike we piled on a Sunday morning into the living of room of Costa Rican president and Nobel Prize winner, Óscar Arias.

In Nicaragua, we spent an afternoon at the country club the Sandinistas had taken over talking with their leaders, whom the CIA-funded Contras were trying to overthrow. I had not yet moved to California, but the Sandinista leader, Daniel Ortega, later president of Nicaragua, struck me as a prototypical Berkeley graduate student, with his aviator sunglasses, leather jacket and radical chic jeans. I couldn’t take him entirely seriously. Indeed, if I’d chosen any of the Sandinistas to have a drink with, it would have been Tomás Borge, their elder statesman (though then only in his fifties). (My taste in drinking partners, however, may be questionable. While I was chairing the National Intelligence Council in the second Obama Administration, I told my colleagues that the person in the Middle East I’d most like to share a drink with—no doubt, tea in his case—was Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian military leader whom the United States later assassinated, very unwisely in my view).

Now the verb, er, theme. It is past time for the United States to recognize that, now, not just Mexico is part of the North American strategic space, but so is Central America. The problem we confront is not at the border. It is in the countries themselves, especially the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. If it is to be resolved, it will there. It is time for a North American federation.

No doubt most Americans think Cinco de Mayo commemorates something to do with Dos Equis beer, but in fact it was important for Mexico—and perhaps for the United States as well. It celebrates their defeat of the French at Puebla in 1862. Mexico later lost that war with France, but historians speculate that if the French had won easily at Puebla, they might have turned north to join up with the Confederacy. So we owe Mexico one, another reason for thinking seriously about a North American federation.

[1] You can watch a replay of Greg’s presentation from the 6 May Town Hall below, with an introduction and questions from our President and CEO, Ajay Patel, CF APMP:

Published on May 11, 2021 by

Dick Eassom, CF APMP Fellow