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Armas No. 2 — The southern question.
Latin America reemerges into history.
Alexander Mikaberidze’s outstanding 2020 “The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History,” which is well worth your time, contains a single passage on the strategic trajectory of Latin America that (figuratively) stopped me in my tracks. It reads:
“[T]he crisis and collapse of Spain’s empire in the Americas were direct results of the political turmoil in Europe. If the Eastern Question revolved around the key question of the fate of the Ottoman Empire, there was a corresponding ‘Western Question,’ one that centered on Spain and its imperial domains. During the Napoleonic Wars, this vast empire got fragmented and was henceforth relegated to the sidelines of world politics.”
That final line, asserting that the independence of the Spanish and Portuguese dominions in the Americas had the effect of removing the successor states from the mainstream of global history, struck me as so obvious and so true that it was nearly background noise — readily apparent but also never mentioned. It also had the effect of crystallizing much prior thought on my part, on the long-term consequences of what gets called decolonization in places like Algeria, south Asia, and so on. Reading the work of Ramachandra Guha on the life of Gandhi (also outstanding and worth your time, even if you have no interest in the subject himself), or the direct arguments advanced by Nirad Chaudhuri, there is a sense that — whatever the justice of it — the cutoff from the metropole carries with it tremendous costs in societal isolation from the great conversation in the wider world. Gandhi himself would have been impossible as a historical figure had he remained in Gujarat: it was his integration into the British imperial system, that took him to England and South Africa for decades before returning home, that made him. Chaudhuri’s own memoir begins with this memorable dedication:
To the memory of The British Empire in India,
which conferred subjecthood on us but withheld citizenship;
to which yet every one of us threw out the challenge: 'civis Britannicus sum,'
because all that was good and living within us
was made, shaped and quickened by the same British rule.
This was, to say the least, very unpopular among Indian intelligentsia, and there was some discussion across the years as to whether the passage was meant as irony. But as Chaudhuri himself pointed out, one of the reasons that same intelligentsia read it was because he decided to print his book in Britain. (In a different context, Algerian intellectual life, to the extent it engages the wider world after 1962, continues to be mediated to a dramatic extent through France’s own.)
To return to Mikaberidze on Latin America, it is evident that the severance from Spain had exactly the regional-historical effect he describes. Mexico City, for example, was at one point — thanks to the Spanish global trade networks — the seat of governance for a good portion of east Asia, significant enough that the Japanese under the Tokugawa shogunate sent expeditions to the Americas under Hasekura Tsunenaga in the early 1600s. (The earliest Spanish attempts at the colonization of Texas, at the opening of the eighteenth century, named the frontier to be settled Las Nuevas Filipinas — the New Philippines — in reference to this status.) There are contemporaneous reports of (very small) numbers of samurai in Mexico at the time, who appear to have swiftly integrated into the larger society of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Mexico as a destination for adventurous immigrants did not last: in the late nineteenth century, the dictatorship of the Porfiriato imported a Chinese laboring class, which was then subjected to massacre in 1911 Torreón. Although Mexico remained a destination for ideological expatriates in the twentieth century — thanks mostly to the political alignment of its revolutionary victors — it never became the preferred destination of migrants that the English-speaking powers to the north did.
(Here we will pause to acknowledge the present influx of American expatriates into Mexico City, which is very real, and will also reverse itself the moment any given expatriate marries and has children.)
There was something hermetic about it, and the same was true for the rest of Latin America. The signal exception was Argentina, nearly the only place — thanks to a combination of no significant indigenous population plus nineteenth-century British influence — to establish itself as a major migrant destination after independence. To a remarkable extent, the population admixture of these countries in the independence decade of 1810-1820 is the population admixture now. There is nothing virtuous or un-virtuous about it: it is simply a fact, and partially explanatory of their differing trajectory from the real governing power of this hemisphere in the United States.
By way of illustration, in my own genealogical work there is a real difference between the (mostly English-descent) family tree on my mother’s side, and the (mostly Spanish-descent) ancestry on my father’s. They are both fairly old populations in the American context — we aren’t Ellis Islanders, we are Mayflower-and-Cortez people — but the Anglo portion encompasses and swells with very little repetition within itself. There is geographic variety and new lines with every generation.
The Spanish portion is quite different: our antecedents for the most part decided to remove themselves to what is now northern Mexico in the late 1500s and early 1600s, and then participated in the Escandón colonizations of Nuevo Santander in the mid-1700s. They haven’t moved since, until literally the last generation, and so there are multiple lines of descent from singular figures, the same names across three- to five-hundred years, common ancestries for nearly everyone, and so on. (Just this week, I emailed a woman I have never met, on a genealogical issue, and it emerged that we have a common ancestor in early nineteenth-century Laredo. This would be somewhat unusual and cause for remark among the general U.S. population, but it is the exceptionally common norm among south-Texas Mexican-Americans.) It is a network of communities that set itself in a place and then turned inward for endless and violent centuries.
You see this across the hemisphere. Or, more properly, you have seen it.
All this is coming to an end. Mikaberidze accurately described Latin America’s removal from history, its “to the sidelines of world politics,” but things last until they don’t. We will have more to say about this in days to come, but consider the emergence of several phenomena in the past decade, and ask whether the status quo will hold.
Consider the breakdown of formal state structures across the region, from Mexico’s cession of thirty to forty percent of territory to its own criminal cartels — state-linked, to be sure — to the brief takeover of Colombian communities by resurgent cartel networks, to the Brazilian state’s inability govern its own urban spaces, to Haiti’s disintegration into warlordism, and beyond. You can view it in many ways, as an overdue post-independence grand-political realignment, or as a simple era of anarchy, or something else entirely.
Consider the fact of mass migration, of millions, northward from nearly every point in the hemisphere — and consider the role of transnational networks in facilitating the movement. Again, remember the historic rootedness of the communities of origin: movement on this scale signifies something transformative.
Consider the domination of nearly the whole region, now, by governments — to the extent that they govern — of the left. The English-speaking powers are also dominated by governments of the left, but this means something very different in a Latin-American context. It means hostility toward the United States to varying degrees, and it means a reengagement with Mikaberidze’s “world politics” on a scale that will be readily apparent to anyone who has walked through Benito Juarez International Airport in the past few years, and noted the exceptional number of inbound Chinese.
American — not hemispheric, I mean the United States of America — security has depended, across the centuries, to a tremendous and unappreciated degree on the persistence of Mikaberidze-type disengagement of the region from “world politics” and world history. This was the strategic purpose of the Monroe Doctrine — to enforce and render permanent the Napoleonic-era severance of Latin America from the world. If that disengagement is ending — and it is — then American national-security needs look very different. The United States has not had to mount a sustained active defense of its own core territory in over a century. (This was dramatically illuminated on 9/11, when it emerged that there was simply no available defense for the national capital itself, which is why unarmed F-16s were sent aloft on suicide missions.) The last time even a peripheral defense was necessary was in the U.S. Army engagement on the Mexican border in 1916-1920.
In the light of this centuries-long hemispheric security, we can understand better the American ability and willingness to commit its armed forces to the other side of the world. That has been a luxury good. To put it in major-combatant command terms, we pour blood and treasure into CENTCOM — but it is SOUTHCOM that actually defends American homes.
It is not at all clear that there is an understanding of this in American strategic-leadership circles, in any corner. Some time back, I inquired on the safety of the highway from Mexico City to Taxco, and received the answer: you know Mexico, everything is fine until it’s not. It is good counsel in general. Everything about the American position versus the hemisphere is fine until it is not. What happens when it is not?
Then we have to think about whether the United States Army can actually control the southern land border.
Then we have to think about whether the United States Navy can control the entirety of the Caribbean.
Then we have to think about whether the United States requires guaranteed access and control for strategic points across the hemisphere: the American-conceived and -built Panama Canal comes to mind.
Then we have to think about the extent to which we tolerate inimical regimes in Havana, Caracas, Managua, and so on.
Then we have to think about whether we demand a higher standard for our relationships with other regional polities: for example, ought we not demand that the Mexican state under AMLO abandon its tacit alliance with the Sinaloan cartel?
Then we have to think about the Monroe Doctrine not as historical artifact, but as current policy.
We have to think hard about whether we actually wish to extend and enforce the position of Latin America that has so powerfully contributed to American security and prosperity across the past two hundred years.
The signs that we are prepared to do any of this are nearly nonexistent. Next week, President Biden arrives in Mexico City to participate in a pantomime, pretending that the autocratic left-populist running Mexico is his equal in something more than a formal sense. There are elements of Mexican civil society that see things clearly, and deserve American engagement and encouragement. They won’t receive it. Everything is fine until it’s not.
Very soon, it is not.