Is Mexico a Failed State?

“Immoral,” “cowardly” or “corrupt” are typical political labels for nations, too seldom used in provable manner (except with respect to France).

But the term “failed state” is a substantive label, and carries far deeper connotation. Pakistan and Mexico learned this the hard way after the U.S. Department of Defense alluded to their domestic problems in the “Weak and Failing states” section of the 2008 Joint Operating Environment (JOE) report.

The report dances around outright accusation, first providing a mushy account of what “failed” means. In the 50 page report, barely a page is dedicated to the topic. One section discusses potential “rapid collapse,” using Yugoslavia’s 1990 fracture due to a “chaotic tangle of warring nationalities” as an example to forewarn that the immediate and complete disintegration of struggling states is not unfeasible. It then cryptically warns that “two large and important states,” Mexico and Pakistan, “bear consideration for rapid and sudden collapse.”

According to the JOE report, Pakistan and Mexico are “worst case scenarios,” with “civil and sectarian war” threatening Pakistan, and the “less likely” overthrow of the Mexican government orchestrated by increasingly powerful gangs and drug cartels. Furthermore, the report argues that failed states (presumably Pakistan and Mexico as well) are characterized by “large” “human suffering” and “internal conflict” that may affect the state’s stability.

Should we be especially worried about Mexico, in light of the recent large-scale prison break and its apparent failure to quell the rampant drug cartel?

It may be a knee-jerk conservative response to dub Mexico “failed” due to the influx of illegal immigrants across the U.S. border. But Mexico is not a failed state.

At least not yet.

“Failed” describes a state that has lost its ability to exercise the powers of a sovereignty: Civil government no longer functions federally, international negotiation is impossible because the government cannot commit the state, law is not enforced and public services cannot be provided. While Mexico periodically loses control of its peripheral territories, has failed to successfully address immigration and is plagued by corruption, calling it a “failed state” is, so far, a stretch. It would be the equivalent of saying that the U.S. was “failed state” during Prohibition, when gangs organized a lucrative — and illegal — alcohol trade.

Mexico is still sovereign, and has an active economy and operational federal government in most of its territory. The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were failed states because the central government collapsed, fractured and no longer exists. Mexico is merely facing tremendous difficulties and has so far failed to address them appropriately.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates does not agree with the JOE report’s designation either. “The chances of the Mexican government losing control of some part of their country or becoming a failed state are very low,” he told Fox News in a March 29 interview. Gates’ skepticism is accurate: While Mexico must overcome many severe problems, it still shows signs of a developing and functional economy.

Mexico, which recently assumed a non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, boasts a steady growth in population, 91% literacy rate and 4.1% unemployment rate. President Felipe Calderon has initiated free trade agreements with other South American countries and has developed programs to catalyze expanse of the private sector. Its $1.599 trillion GDP has consistently experienced positive growth.

But at the same time, Mexico has glaring qualities of a developing state. Its imports outweigh its exports (and are especially dependent on the U.S.), poverty is widespread and its large agricultural sector is far behind what it should be. While Mexico has consistently suffered from an immigrant flight to the U.S., its own borders are porous, with immigrants pouring in from impoverished neighbors such as Guatemala.

Because Mexico is a valuable ally — for security and trade reasons among others — it is imperative for the U.S. to closely monitor its status and communicate with its leadership. The U.S. cannot afford to continue to accept waves of illegal immigrants due to the enormous burden they place on welfare, Social Security, public schools, etc.

But because Mexico is so important, the JOE report is not clear and concise enough in its designation. It neither provides a plan of action nor references specific scenarios, leaving a lingering and dangerously vague aura of panic.

At the most fundamental level, the report highlights the term “failed state,” a phrase commonly used by the press, but lacks official definition. It most often refers to the contrived meaning used by the Fund for Peace, a think tank that publishes an annual “Failed States Index.” The JOE report cites a “current list” of failed states throughout “Sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa,” which presumably refers to the Index.

Examining the Fund’s “Failed State Index” reaffirms the organization’s biases. Often using conflated and unquantifiable categories (i.e. “Suspension or Arbitrary Application of the Rule of Law and Widespread Violation of Human Rights” and “Mounting Demographic Pressures”), the Fund indexes 177 countries, in ascending order, as “alert,” “warning,” “moderate” and “sustainable,” with Somalia first and Norway last as of 2008.

Of course, socialistic sweethearts Canada, the Netherlands and Scandinavia are considered “sustainable,” while the U.S. is placed as a modest “moderate,” just one degree shy of Mexico’s “warning” level. The Fund’s advice for the U.S.?

“The U.S. should also implement policies that decrease income inequality and uneven access to social services, such as health care. Its human rights policies in the fight against terrorism are controversial and have raised questions about the country’s adherence to international norms, treaties policies it helped create.”

In other words, to satisfy the Fund, the U.S. should redistribute wealth and be nicer to our enemies. Sounds like a recent campaign platform.

But what of Mexico? The U.S. cannot afford to have a failed state on its southern border, one that would serve as a funnel through which drugs, violent gangs and illegal immigrants flow into its territory.

One of the biggest issues facing the Obama administration is what, if anything, it will do to stop the transfer of Mexico’s problems into America’s. Nothing to accomplish that has yet even been proposed.