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America is a Smuggler Nation


Smuggler Nation is revisionist history in the best sense. This is not the oft told, routinely taught story of America’s emergence as a major nation and a global power, forever bound by its commitment to the rule of law in trade and society.

Rather in Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America (Oxford University Press, 2013) we come to see U.S. history as “the story of how smuggling – and the attempts to police it – have made and remade America, from the illicit molasses trade in colonial times to drug trafficking today,” as Peter Andreas observes in the book’s introduction.

As one might expect, Andreas treats the reader to a bounty of colorful accounts illustrating how fundamental illicit trade has been to the formation and development of America – not the just the wily and powerful smugglers but also the law enforcement apparatus deployed, usually ineffectively, against smuggling.  “For better or for worse, smuggling was an essential ingredient in the very birth and development of America and its transformation into a global power,” writes Andreas.

In other words, American smuggling is more than a fascinating sideshow full of flamboyant and iconic characters in U.S. history. Rather understanding smuggling – and what is now termed transnational organized crime – is essential if we are to broaden our understanding of history. More important, though, is the book’s successful highlighting of many of the fundamental policy challenges we face today as a nation – such as U.S. border security, mass incarceration, vast federally dominated criminal justice system, drug control, and trade relations.

Andreas, a political science professor at Brown University, is a scholar on border policy and illicit trade. Yet he writes with the elegance and engaging prose of a world-class journalist. In telling the story, however, never does Andreas lose sight of the policy implications of American smuggling and anti-smuggling law enforcement.

Smuggler Nation not rounds out and expands our understanding of the illicit economic foundations of U.S. economic growth and power – therefore a valuable contribution to U.S. historiography. Introducing the reader to an impressive — but 9780199746880_p0_v2_s260x420not an overwhelming — detailed history of smuggling, Andreas is always moving the story along to its conclusions – in the apparent hope that they will also be the conclusions of a thoughtful citizenry and policy community.

For those readers concerned about how many in our society have been imprisoned and about the closely associated expansion of the now pervasive federal criminal justice system, the chapter on “America’s Century-Long Drug War” serves to confirm our growing unease with U.S. drug prohibition and its international reach.

Typical of the powerful analytical logic manifest in Andreas’ writing, the lead sentence of the chapter states:  “The use of mind-altering drugs – whether for ceremonial medicinal, or recreational purposes – has existed throughout human history.” Instead of acknowledging this fact and constructing policy around this central truth, the U.S. went to war against drugs, steadily escalating throughout the 20th century and continuing into the 21st – albeit having it renamed and reframed (unhelpfully) by the Obama administration as the “Combat Against Transnational Organized Crime.”

The drug war chapter charts the war’s escalation and follies, including the government’s frequent collaboration with foreign drug trafficking groups to serve an ideologically driven foreign policy and distorted perceptions of U.S. national interests.  Fascinating episodes of U.S. history, and lots of anecdotes to share here, but it’s the summary conclusion that is best remembered:

New and more punitive laws were passed, new and bigger prisons were built to house violators, and arm-twisting drug diplomacy became a new and increasing component of U.S. foreign relations. Yet despite this sustained drug war buildup, the illicit drug business not only survived but turned into one of the most profitable sectors of global trade, with the United States as the world’s leading consumer.

The chapter on the U.S.-Mexico border tis perhaps the most topical, given the centrality of the “border security” issue to the current immigration reform debate. As such, it should be required reading for politicians who regularly pronounce about “security the border,” “smart border security,” or “regaining control of our borders.” Andreas makes the case that the surge in border security and fears is largely an important degree “an unintended feedback effect of past policy choices,” a claim he then proceeds to document. The rise of organized (and often armed) immigrant smuggling operations along the border is, Andreas writes, “part of a much older and larger pattern of government interventions inadvertently creating a thriving cross-border smuggling economy.” In other words, the more the U.S. fortifies the border the more immigrants and others are driven into newly formed bands of criminals.

Andreas observes that the U.S.-Mexico border continues to be “ground zero in America’s campaign against smuggling of people of people and drugs,” much as the U.S. government has long viewed the border, especially since the late 1960s. Yet now, “Washington also increasingly viewed these clandestine border crossings as part of a much larger, more ominous, and unprecedented globalized crime threat requiring a U.S.-led global response.”

Along with Andreas, Smuggler Nation readers and those who have otherwise followed such policy rhetoric “cannot help but get a strong sense of historical déjà vu.”

Andreas writes, “[T]here is at least as much continuity as transformation in this illicit globalization story.” It’s worth keeping this formulation in mind when we reflect on the cascade of policy initiatives on border security, immigration flows, drug trade, and gun control.

The concluding chapter, “America and Illicit Globalization in the Twenty-First Century” is studded with sentence-long jewels of policy (and historical) wisdom.  Read the entire book, but you may want to commit his concluding statements to memory including the following:

* “Despite the anxious voices inside the beltway who warn us that ‘smugglers, traffickers, and copycats are hijacking the global economy’ [citing Moises Naim], the reality is that these illicit actors have long been integral to the global economy and indeed helped to create it.”

* “For the most part, transnational organized crime is therefore merely a fancy new term for an old and familiar practice: smuggling.”

* “For all the U.S. finger-pointing at offshore tax havens and money-laundering centers…. the state of Delaware is one of the easiest places in the world to hide money via shell companies….”

* “[T]he image of an octopuslike network of crime syndicates that runs the underworld through its expansive tentacles is a fiction invented by sensationalistic journalists, opportunistic politicians, and Hollywood scriptwriters.”

* “If this picture matched reality, the challenge to law enforcement would actually be far less difficult: one would need only to cut off the head of the octopus and the tentacles would die with it.”

* “Rather than an extreme example of ‘globalization out of control,’ the prevalence of illicit commerce today partly reflects how limited and incomplete globalization actually is.”

* “We should therefore not lose sight of the fact that, even if not always terribly effective, it is the very existence of government controls and efforts to tighten them that makes it necessary for illicit traders to adapt and devise such creative and elaborate evasive maneuvers.”

* “The United States has shaped the global anti-smuggling agenda more than any other nation. No country has been more aggressive and more successful in exporting its favored prohibitions and policing practices” – contrasting U.S.-led drug war with U.S. obstruction of proposed stringent controls on small weapons trafficking.

* “If these historical episodes are any guide, it is worth contemplating that illicit trade today may be licit trade tomorrow,” pointing to marijuana.

* ”Like the British in their crusade against the illicit slave trade in the nineteenth century, the United States leads a crusade of sorts against drugs – but whereas the former was about freeing people, the war on drugs is about locking them up….”

So why all the history — chapter after chapter on the many dimensions through centuries of smuggling and the law enforcement reaction?  Andreas answers his own rhetorical question this way: Because “bringing in history,” …“corrects for the hubris of the present and the common tendency to view recent developments as entirely new and unprecedented.”

What is to be done? Andreas offers more lessons than prescriptions – although the in final chapter does signal several logical policy directions. But more valuable perhaps that a listing of recommended policy reforms is the advice Andreas offers in the last few pages of Smuggler Nation. “There are inherent limits to how much we can deter, detect, and interdict unauthorized flows of goods and people across our borders, especially while maintaining an open society and keeping borders open for legal trade and travel.”

The fear-driven, politically opportunistic campaigns to “secure the border” have generated “enormous collateral damage” in the form of immigrant deaths, a more violent border, and a dysfunctional immigration system.

Andreas saves his most pointed analytical blow for the book’s engaging and personalized epilogue. Yes, there is a problem of transnational organized smuggling and organized criminal operations. But these operations aren’t the targets of Obama’s “Strategy to Combat Organized Criminal Organizations.” Rather, insists Andreas, protected aspects of licit enterprises are the major threats to national and international stability.

“Even though America very much remains a smuggler nation (along with its counterpart, the ever-expanding police nation [reviewer’s italicization]) it seems clear that curbing reckless behavior in the licit side of the economy is the country’s most formidable challenge today.”  That’s the kind of writing and policy analysis that should make that academic community proud of having Peter Andreas as one of its stellar representatives.

Tom Barry directs the TransBorder Project at the Center for International Policy and is the author of Border Wars  from MIT Press. See his work at

Also see related analysis by Tom Barry: 

Failure of Vision: U.S. Drug War Turns to International Combat,” Sept. 7, 2011, CounterPunch.

Drug War to Transnational Combat, CIP International Policy Report, September 2011.

Tom Barry directs the Transborder Program at the Center for International Policy and is a contributor to the Americas Program

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