America: Choose Your Enemies Wisely

"Getting it wrong can lead to serious, damaging consequences."

How should a nation identify its enemies? This is a serious question faced by every nation every day. No nation has a higher priority than the protection of its territory, its citizens and its way of life. Laxity in identifying enemies can be disastrous, as history amply demonstrates. But overzealousness can also have serious consequences.

Such musings may be propitious these days because the United States has been on a tear in recent years in declaring itself to be in adversarial positions vis-à-vis a host of nations or ruling regimes—Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iran, and Russia. China may be next, based on the evolving relationship between that rising Asian power and America. So some serious thinking on the topic may be in order.

Let’s begin with geography, the prime factor in generating hostile relationships among nations. If the map surrounding a nation renders that nation vulnerable to neighboring countries, then it must either change the map to rearrange the power balance or submit to the realities of the prevailing power disparity. Geography isn’t America’s problem. It sits upon the choicest lands of North America, stretching across the midsection of the continent, with abundant ports and harbors, a vast network of navigable rivers, and an ideal climate. Two vast oceans protect it, and its two neighbors, north and south, lack the population and resources to pose any serious threat.

But, even as a fledgling nation, the United States resolved it wouldn’t take any chances with geography. Hence James Monroe’s audacious 1823 Doctrine. In that day, only the European powers could pose a serious threat to the United States or to regional stability in the Americas. And the United States declared that entire vast territory off limits to those European nations. It was breathtaking in its scope, but somehow the defiant little nation got away with it. Most European powers, most of the time, accepted Monroe’s challenge as representing a definition of America’s sphere of influence. (At the time of the Monroe Doctrine, Mexico posed a theoretical future threat to U.S. interests, but President James Polk was to rectify that by adding some five hundred thousand square miles of U.S. territory, most of it from Mexico, through war and diplomacy.)

Thus, even today geography smiles benevolently upon America. It has no serious adversaries or enemies anywhere nearby. But if nations must always be surveying the scene for potential problems from outside forces, then the United States is probably foolhardy to ignore the long-term consequences of illegal immigration from Mexico and prospects that that nation, in the next decades, could become a sump of civic dysfunction captured from within by drug lords of immense wealth and geopolitical reach.

Already the United States has ceded its border with Mexico to immigration, much of it illegal. As geopolitical analyst George Friedman has written, “As populations shift, the border is increasingly seen [by Mexicans] as arbitrary or illegitimate, and migration from the poorer to the richer country takes place...the cultural border of Mexico shifts northward even though the political border remains static.” Friedman sees this trend accelerating in coming years, turning significant swaths of U.S. borderland territory into quasi-Mexican territory.

If this process collides with threats of a destabilized American society from drug-lord activity spilling over from the south, borderland tensions could generate broader tensions between the two nations. George Friedman discounts this possibility, seeing Mexico instead as a rising power poised to build upon its current foundation as a nation of 110 million people with an economy ranked fifteenth in the world. In this scenario, Mexico becomes positioned “to challenge the territorial integrity of the United States, and the entire balance of power of North America.” Thus, either way, Mexico poses a potential challenge to the United States of serious proportions within the next several decades.

But for now, while getting control of the border constitutes a serious long-term challenge of strategic significance, the geographical scene is serene.

Next we must consider cultural tensions. The late Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard famously suggested in 1993 that the post-Cold War era would be characterized by civilizational clashes. “The principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations,” he wrote. “The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” These clashes will be driven by ethnic, religious and civilizational impulses, he predicted, and even within civilizations he foresaw spreading ethnic and religious conflict.

Many in the West rejected this notion, beguiled as they were by the idea that the great geopolitical drama of our time was the struggle of peoples throughout the world to replicate Western democratic structures. But events since the Cold War’s end have demonstrated a heightened sense of cultural identity in the world and a growing tendency for people to embrace violent means of defending or projecting their cultural identities. The 9/11 attacks on Americans upon their own soil back in 2001 certainly reflected this reality.