Getting it Done: How Civil Society Can Help Secure the U.S.-Mexico Border

In a rapidly changing world of complex systems, small shifts can produce very big consequences. Here are some ways that local institutions and social networks are already working along the Rio Grande border

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A truck bearing Mexican and U.S. flags approaches the border crossing into the U.S., in Laredo / Reuters

If power really is shifting in part from governments to social actors and if those actors have a growing role to play in helping to solve regional and global problems, as I have been arguing, then the proof comes from through innovative partnerships, networks, and collaborations. State, local, and municipal governments also have a big role to play here, as do traditionally domestic government agencies. All of these actors fit in the broader category of non-traditional foreign policy participants. From time to time I will write a column in an ongoing series on "Getting It Done," documenting examples of the work that is happening and producing results on the foreign policy frontier. I encourage all readers to send me examples they know about, preferably through Twitter at @slaughteram, so that I can spread the news through Twitter as well as reporting on it here. But you can also write me by posting a comment here at The Atlantic.

I'm going to kick off this series with a discussion of the role of new players in performing perhaps the most sacred function of territorial states: protecting their borders. The border between the U.S. and Mexico divides two very different states, differences that give rise to many of the problems along the Rio Grande. It is certainly possible to understand much of what happens along that border in terms of clashing state interests and relative state power. The U.S. has sent troops, spies, and law enforcement agents across the Mexican border many times, in ways that will color U.S.-Mexican relations for decades if not centuries to come. The U.S.-Mexican relationship has also shaped traditional Mexican foreign policy, leading successive Mexican governments to align with the non-aligned movement during Cold War struggles between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, for example, and to rarely side with the United States on international votes.

The state-to-state lens remains useful in thinking about U.S.-Mexican relations. But when it comes to life as it is actually lived along the border, where transnational problems arise and must be solved, sub-state and transnational actors are developing their own solutions.

One of the biggest transborder issues is the horrific civil violence caused by drug cartels operating in both the U.S. and Mexico, which both spills across the border and weakens the Mexican state. Within Mexico, 34, 612 people have been killed from 2006 until January 2012, a toll higher than that in many ongoing civil wars. Governments, corporations, and citizens are responding in part by trying to map the violence using texts, digital mapping technology, and social media.

It's a strategy that recently cost Maria Elizabeth Marcia, the 39-year old editor of Primera Hora in Nuevo Laredo, her life. The killers placed Marcia's head next to a computer, mouse, cables, and headphones. Her crime? Using social media to report on the activities of local drug gangs. This was just the latest of a string of gruesome attacks. Earlier this month, two young people were murdered and hung from an overpass in the same city for daring to blog about gangs. The swiftness and brutality of the gang response suggests they understand the potential power of this strategy to mobilize ordinary citizens against the gangs. We should be doing everything we can to support Mexicans who are taking these kinds of risks. As one example, my former colleagues at the U.S. State Department traveled to Mexico two years ago to explore ways to use technology to reduce violence, as just one example of government-to-society diplomacy.

In other cases, different government agencies have forged their own partnerships across the border. Since 2010, American and Mexican border guards are increasingly working together to coordinate patrols. Our environmental regulators have been doing this with Mexico since at least 1994, building an extensive set of institutional linkages to manage pollution that floats unimpeded across the border. American companies might be able to outsource production to Mexico, but many of the environmental impacts of the maquiladoras that line the border slip right back across.

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Anne-Marie Slaughter is the president of the New America Foundation and the Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. She was previously the director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department and the dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. More

From 2009-2011, Slaughter served as Director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State, the first woman to hold that position. After leaving the State Department, she received the Secretary's Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor conferred by the State Department, for her work leading the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. She also received a Meritorious Honor Award from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). 

Prior to her government service, Slaughter was the dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs from 2002-2009. She has written or edited six books, including A New World Order (2004) and The Idea That Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World (2007). From 1994-2002, Slaughter was the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law and director of the International Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School. She received a B.A. from Princeton, an M.Phil and D.Phil in international relations from Oxford, where she was a Daniel M. Sachs Scholar, and a J.D. from Harvard.

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