Cowboys and Kalashnikovs: Comparing the Mexican-American War to the Conflict in Ukraine

Could a look into America's past help understand the present or even the future? 

Porfirio Diaz, who dominated Mexico at the turn of the twentieth century, once famously diagnosed the dual source of his country’s misfortunes. "Poor Mexico,” he lamented, “so far from God, so close to the United States."

Diaz knew of what he spoke. The nineteenth century was a particularly unhappy one for U.S.-Mexican relations. By 1848, Mexico had been impelled to cede—by force of arms or its implied threat—what is now the state of Texas, and subsequently the entire southwestern United States. For Mexico, this period involved a disastrous loss of fertile, if sparsely populated, territory. For the United States, it was an unsurpassed geostrategic bonanza, and was arguably the single most important event in transforming the country into a transcontinental great power. A messianic, national-chauvinist, white-supremacist fervor—the animating concept of which, “Manifest Destiny,” was first popularized in 1845—drove the United States to annex Texas that same year, and to fight its great expansionary war of 1846-1848.

Indeed, Texas was the catalyst for the whole affair. In the early 1820s, the Mexican government invited Americans to settle the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas, as long as they agreed to certain stipulations (such as conversion to Catholicism and the banning of slavery). The settlers often refused, leading to tensions with Mexican officials. In 1830, further American immigration to Tejas was forbidden. A few years later, federal officials in Mexico City began to attempt to concentrate power in the capital, disturbing regional autonomy. Incensed, “Texians,” as they were then known, waged a secessionist campaign against the Mexican government, winning independence in 1836.

The final status of Texas was never assured: some Americans wanted a friendly but independent buffer state, while others favored direct incorporation into the union. Others still—especially abolitionists, since an independent Texas or American Texas would both presumably be ardent slave states—thought poorly of the whole affair, and would very likely have been satisfied with continued Mexican suzerainty over the whole southwest. (Henry David Thoreau spent his famous night in jail because of his refusal to pay taxes to an unjust U.S. government—that is, one fighting what he considered an immoral war in Mexico.)

It was the question of slavery that kept Texas out of the union for nearly a decade, but once admitted—under President James Polk, a slyly belligerent nationalist—westward expansion took on an inexorable cast. In April 1846, Polk had U.S. troops cross the previously agreed-upon Mexico-Texas border, the Nueces River, and journey much farther west, to the Rio Grande. When Mexican troops then attacked, Polk used this as pretext for war (claiming that the American soldiers were assaulted on domestic soil). By September 1847, victorious U.S. troops were occupying Mexico City. Negotiations there between the belligerents led to the aforementioned transfer (for a price) of California and the rest of the desert southwest.

Think about the dynamics of this war. A smaller, weaker state, internally divided, with poor institutions, shares a large land border with an expansionist regional power that (either through crimes of commission or omission) foments instability there. A large number of ethnonational kin of the stronger state live on the "wrong" side of the border; that is, they are on land not technically incorporated into that country’s territory. Attempts at centralization from the corrupt and inefficient federal government of the weaker state lead to the secession of a hitherto autonomous region populated by co-ethnics of the stronger state. That state then provokes the weaker one into a war it does not want to fight, knowing it will likely lose, but has no choice but to prosecute anyway.

As in Mexico, so in Ukraine. Poor Ukraine, one might even say: so far from God, so close to Russia. Ukraine, too, suffers from poor institutions, and a weak and dreadfully corrupt government. And it continues to fall prey to the depredations of a very powerful state directly across its borders—Russia—a transcontinental empire with significant material, geostrategic, and demographic interests in it, not to mention certain emotional ones. In fact, the history of Ukraine is far more bound up in Russia’s own than Mexico’s ever was for the United States. Nearly one in five Ukrainians considers himself ethnically Russian; a much larger percentage, up to one in three speaks Russian as her native language. And here is a major disjuncture with the U.S.-Mexico case: no American statesman could ever claim, with even the thinnest shred of plausibility, that Texas played a central role in the ancient development of the American nation—which is exactly what Russian nationalists today claim about Ukraine’s history as part of the medieval “Kievan Rus,” which in their eyes prefigured the modern Russian state. For the entire modern era, Ukraine was seen as an integral part of the Russian empire: and from at least the eighteenth century onward, it was.