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NAFTA's Evolving NATO?


by Austin Bay
May 1, 2012

NAFTA isn't NATO, at least not yet. However, the North American defense ministers conference hosted by Canada the last week of March sent the low-key but categorically public message that Mexico has emerged as the U.S. and Canada's regional security partner.

The conference, held in Ottawa, was the first scheduled trilateral defense ministers meeting involving all three North American countries in which Mexico officially participated. The three countries agreed to increase their efforts to combat drug cartels, to include sharing intelligence and cooperating in land and sea missions to stop cartel operations.

As allies in World War I and World War II, the U.S. and Canadian security partnership was close prior to the creation of NATO, but the Cold War threat that Soviet bombers and ballistic missiles posed to North America prompted near-seamless defense cooperation between the two nations. To counter the Soviet air and space threat, Washington and Ottawa created the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to defend North American skies. Though the primary threat was a Soviet land-based bomber and missile attack over the North Pole, submarine-launched missiles could strike from any direction. Thus NORAD's perimeter extended from the Arctic Sea to --- well, the Gulf of Mexico and further south.

The truth is, Mexico was not so much the missing man in continental defense as it was the silent contributor.

U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) plays a vital role in U.S. homeland security. NORTHCOM and NORAD are now collocated and are functionally linked. NORTHCOM has had Mexican military liaison officers (from the Mexican Army, Navy and Air Force) operating with its staff for several years. The U.S. provides Mexico with security intelligence information -- and thanks to Mexican media coverage, the Mexican public knows it.

The security relationship has evolved to the point where Mexico and the U.S. are conducting low-key and narrowly focused military training exercises. This week (beginning May 2), NORTHCOM has scheduled exercise Ardent Sentry 2012. Officials describe the exercise as a joint U.S.-Mexico simulation involving military support for civilian agencies in a natural disaster. Providing civilian agencies with appropriate military support during a natural disaster is a major NORTHCOM mission. The 2012 exercise scenario involves a hurricane striking southern Texas. Of course, if a hurricane hits Brownsville, Texas, and drives up the Rio Grande, the storm will also smash Mexico's northern Gulf coast.

A dozen or so years ago, a public exercise involving the Mexican and U.S. militaries might have surprised many U.S. and Mexican citizens, and given Mexican historical suspicions of the U.S. military, elicited sharp political criticism from nationalists across the Mexican political spectrum. Mexicans, too, remember the Alamo, but not quite in the John Wayne tradition.

Dreadful recent history has changed perceptions. Al-Qaida's 9-11 atrocity and Mexico's bitter Cartel War demonstrate that North America is a battle zone facing an array of destructive threats, from militarized crime to terrorism to conventional military threats. Mexican security officials sent the message -- with political clarity -- that increased intelligence sharing, closer operational liaison with the U.S. and Canada, and training assistance are in Mexico's interest.

NORTHCOM has indicated future exercises could involve U.S., Canadian and Mexican air and naval assets responding to illegal (criminal) activities. Natural disaster is one thing, but exercising a joint response to external human threats is much more blatantly military, in terms of publicly acknowledged U.S.-Mexican cooperation. Air and naval assets responding to illegal activities suggests a maritime and air narcotics smuggling scenario. Given the three nations' common concerns with the Cartel War and heavily armed criminal syndicates, this training scenario is just common sense. Jingoist politicians may object, but sensible leaders know it. 

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