Globalization and the Wall Around the West

A Turkish police officer stands next to the body of the young boy. Photograph: Reuters

A Turkish police officer stands next to the body of the young boy. Photograph: Reuters

In recent weeks and months, the press has paid increasing attention to the problem of migrants and refugees fleeing to Europe in an effort to escape dire conditions in the Africa and the Middle East.  Among the most stirring images released recently was that of a three year old Syrian boy named Aylan Kurdi, who drowned with his mother and brother while heading to Greece to escape the violence and insurgency that has been raging there 2011. By some estimates, as many as 300,000 migrants and refugees have poured into Southern Europe this year, a sign of the heightened instability and economic difficulties faced by war torn and lesser developed countries along the Mediterranean Sea.

The massive relocation of people is not a new phenomenon, of course. During and after World War II, hundreds of thousands of people fled the desperate physical and economic conditions resulting from war.  Thanks in part to a roughly $13 billion aid package from the United States, known as the Marshall Plan, Europe’s political and economic conditions stabilized. Decades later, conditions improved to the point that Europe has now become a major destination for migrants and refugees. Indeed, as in the United States, the pull of economic opportunity is so strong that many migrants will go to great extremes to find a better life, even immigrating without authorization. For this reason, the United States and Europe have made substantial efforts to stem the tide of unauthorized migration, resulting in the massive buildup of immigration enforcement and physical barriers that have effectively built what some scholars have described as a “wall around the West.”

The irony of today’s situation is that the current era has been widely heralded as the “Age of Globalization,” in which capital, goods, and information flow freely across international boundaries creating a “borderless world.” Yet, in reality, borders between developed and lesser-developed countries have hardened, not softened with the course of globalization (as illustrated by the case of the U.S.-Mexico border). Thus, the plight of Europe’s incoming migrants and refugee populations raises many practical and ethical questions about today’s global economy:

  • Instead of creating more opportunities for everyone, has globalization simply created more opportunities for some and not others (or perhaps even at the expense of others)?
  • What right do migrants and refugees have to seek better opportunities for themselves? What right do the United States and European countries have to deny their quest for better opportunities?
  • What responsibility, if any, does a person have to others when seeking their own self preservation? What responsibilities, if any, do we have to our neighbors when they are in need?
  • What can and should be done, if anything, to address the plight of people fleeing dire poverty or the destruction and misery of war zones? What can and should be done, if anything, to protect national boundaries from encroachment by outsiders in need?
  • In the European context, in particular, how should this relatively new community of nations plan on sharing the burden of providing assistance to the current wave of migrants and refugees. Are the current quotas assigned to different countries reasonable or even feasible?
  • What is the type of treatment that should be given to (economic) migrants and (political) refugees? Should they be treated the same? Should either be forced to live in camps, separated from their families? Should either be granted automatic legal status to reside in a country until they are able to return home?

Those interested in this topic may be interested to take a look at a monograph I co-edited a few years ago with my colleague José María Román, entitled 2 Borders/2FronterasThe monograph grew out of a year long study that included site visits on both sides of the Atlantic, and includes a series of essays comparing the situation of the U.S.-Mexican land border to that of the tri-border area of Spain-Gibraltar-Morocco.


Public Opinion Woes for Mexico’s President


Enrique Peña Nieto on election night: “Ganó México, pero no gano México.”

As Brazil’s search for a new president continues, a recent news report from Correio Braziliense reporter Gabriela Walker takes a look at the leadership of Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has brokered a series of major policy reforms during his first two years in office but has received little love from public opinion polls. Indeed, as the Los Angeles Times has also noted based on a new Pew poll, Peña Nieto finished this summer with well below 50% popular support, Mexico’s current president is ironically both one of the most effective in terms of implementing his agenda and also among the least popular in decades. What explains this? My take, as expressed in the Walker article, is that: “Acontece no México, nos EUA, em todos os lugares. O nível de satisfação da população tem muito a ver com o bolso, com o modo como estão se saindo economicamente.” [Look, mom, I’m speaking Brazilian!] Or as I might say in English, Mexico’s dragging economy—barely more than 1% GDP growth in 2013—is kicking Peña Nieto’s butt. In the coming year, we should expect greater than 3% growth and some improvement in Peña Nieto’s popularity.  

However, as I also mentioned to Ms. Walker for this story, I think there is something a bit peculiar about presidential popularity polls in Mexico, insofar as the country’s three-party-system (or 2.3—2.5 party system, as Manuel Alcántara would say, to be more precise). Mexico’s last two presidents —Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón—both won the presidency with less than half of the electorate’s support, yet both maintained higher than 50% approval ratings throughout their presidencies. This was especially surprising in Calderón’s case because he won a very narrowly contested election in 2006, which some still say he actually lost to Andres Manuel López Obrador (who spent the next six years parading around the country claiming to be Mexico’s “itinerant” president). 

The thing is this: I suspect that there is a bias in Mexican opinion polling that works against Mr. Peña Nieto because he is from the country’s traditional ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (or PRI, as it is known for its initials in Spanish). Both Fox and Calderón were candidates from the National Action Party, Mexico’s oldest opposition party, which unseated the PRI in 2000. I suspect that the antipathy that supporters of other parties feel toward the PRI is stronger than it is for any other party. If that’s true, then a PRI or a PRD supporter might be willingly to acknowledge (albeit grudgingly) that Fox or Calderón was doing a decent job while in office. However, because of their strong dislike of the PRI, neither a PRD or PAN supporter is willing to give much slack to Peña Nieto.  They say that children are the cruelest of all, but maybe it’s actually the Mexican political opposition. 

This is consistent with an argument made several years ago by Jorge Domínguez and James McCann, who found that Mexican voters cast their ballots in a two step strategic calculus: 1) determine whether or not they support the PRI, 2) if they do not support the PRI, then vote for the alternative that is most likely to beat the PRI. It may be that, as long as the PRI remains so reviled by Mexico’s traditional opposition parties, PRI presidents will suffer from those biases in opinion polls. The hidden silver lining for PRI supporters in all of this is that they actually appear to be “better losers.” That is, PRI supporters are better able to accept that their candidate lost an election and still admit it when they perceive that the winner is doing a good job. We should keep that in mind, because being a “good loser” is one of the most admirable traits of a citizen in a democracy.  It shows acceptance of the rules by which the democratic game is played, even when we don’t always get what we want. Either that, or PRI supporters have such low standards that any winning candidate with a heartbeat passes muster for them, as long as they get a torta at the end of the day. And there is something to be said for that, too.

EVENT: Carrie Kahn visits USD

NPR Carrie Kahn reporter visited the University of San Diego on February 6, 2014.

NPR Carrie Kahn reporter visited the University of San Diego on February 6, 2014.

USD—On Thursday, February 6, 2013, National Public Radio Mexico City correspondant Carrie Kahn spoke with University of San Diego students about her work over the last decade reporting on disasters and disaster relief efforts in the United States, Mexico and Haiti.

Kahn’s  work on reporting disasters includes stories on Hurricanes Wilma, Rita, and Katrina in 2005, as well as reporting on the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and recent flooding in Acapulco in 2013. During her career, Kahn helped track down a fellow reporter that was stranded during a hurricane, and was the first reporter to break the story on euthanasia during Katrina. After years of reporting on these difficult situations, Kahn noted that disaster exposes all of the weaknesses of both a government and society, but it can also create opportunities for officials and communities to prepare for future catastrophes.

She talked about the challenges of disaster reporting, including the risk of personal harm, the difficulty of conveying the realities of the situation on the ground, the ethical decisions reporters face when they encounter disaster victims, where the money goes in disaster relief, keeping the public informed disasters that often last far longer than the 24-hour media cycle, and (importantly) what to pack for disaster reporting.

EVENT: Typhoon Haiyan

Haiyan PosterOn Tuesday, November 24, the Political Science and International Relations department and the Filipino Student Organization hosted a lunch presentation and  discussion on the disastrous effects of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

The discussion included an examination of the nature of typhoons, the effects of Haiyan in the hard hit rural areas that the typhoon struck, and the domestic and international humanitarian efforts to rescue and provide relief to the victims. For more information on efforts to support victims of Typhoon Haiyan at the University of San Diego, click here. For the full presentation (20MB) from this event, click here.

Trip Report: UN Security Roundtable


On Thursday, November 14 and Friday, November 15, I participated in a private workshop hosted by the United Nations Office of Drug Control Policy (UNODC) at the the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE). Other experts invited to the roundtable included Raul Benitez (UNAM), Jorge Chabat (CIDE), Leondardo Curzio (CIDE), Stephen Dudley (, Douglas Farah (IBI Consultants), Viridiana Rios (Harvard University), Brig. General Oscar Naranjo Trujillo, and Phil Williams (University of Pittsburgh). The purpose of the meeting was to provide an assessment of the major security challenges facing Mexico in the world today, and gain perspective on the threats that may lie ahead. The discussion included a wide ranging examination of both domestic and international security threats and vulnerabilities, including the problem of trans-national organized crime, climatic change, institutional weakness, and cyber threats. The discussion of internal security threats—and especially violence—from drug trafficking loomed large in the discussion. As one participant pointed out, Latin America has 8% of the world’s population, but produces 33% of the world’s murders; and Mexico contributes more than its fair share of those murders. Among the key factors that several participants pointed out was the need for stronger institutions to combat crime and procure the administration of justice in states that are relatively weak, or have weakly developed criminal justice sectors. 

The NSA in Mexico: If You Can’t Betray Your Friends…

Paraphrasing Bismarck: in statecraft, there are no amigos, only interests.

This truism of realpolitick has been underscored by revelations in recent months that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has been tapping the electronic and wireless communications of its closest allies, including Mexico. Documents released this summer by Richard Snowden, a former-U.S. government contractor now living in exile in Russia, provide evidence that the NSA gained access to the official public email addresses used by the Mexican president and other government agencies, as well as the private communications of then-candidate Enrique Peña Nieto and his nine closest collaborators. Read more here.