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Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series examining Washington's relationship with its allies after U.S. President Joe Biden's first year in office.
Former President Donald Trump’s “my way or the highway” approach to diplomacy severely damaged the United States’ relationship with Mexico. The Biden administration has fortunately taken steps to place the partnership on firmer footing. A lack of strategic vision and appetite, however, as well as political constraints in Washington and Mexico City, are impeding a closer partnership that could pay dividends for both countries.
Before Trump’s election, U.S.-Mexican collaboration had been on an upward trajectory since the early 1990s. Two pivotal moments—the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement that helped integrate the countries’ economies and the 9/11 attacks that forced both nations to deepen national security and intelligence cooperation—changed the course of the relationship. The events cemented a paradigm of shared responsibility as the way to tackle challenges and capitalize on opportunities. To be sure, a stark power asymmetry between both nations will always exist, and disagreements have occasionally surfaced during three decades of constructive relations. Nonetheless, successive governments of different political stripes on either side of the border understood that the two countries played a unique and interdependent role in each other’s well-being and security.
Trump and his diplomatic vandalism challenged that underlying assumption. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has further frayed relations. He conceives of the relationship in purely transactional terms: he gives the United States what he believes it wants in exchange for ensuring that Washington does not question his domestic policies, many of which are severely weakening Mexico. For its part, the Biden administration has turned a blind eye toward López Obrador’s antidemocratic moves because it needs his support in intercepting migrants traveling to the United States through Mexico. In the runup to the 2022 elections, administration officials would no doubt prefer to avoid images of migrants and refugees heading to the border; they are well aware that the GOP would exploit such a scenario in the midterm elections.
In this way, Washington has fallen into an “Erdogan trap”: the Biden administration gave López Obrador leeway in his domestic policies in exchange for his help on stemming migration, in a deal that echoes the arrangements that some European governments made with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in exchange for Turkey’s help in stopping flows of Syrian refugees to Europe in 2015-16. This strategy, driven mainly by U.S. domestic policy and imperatives, ignores the fact that the erosion of Mexico’s democracy will not only profoundly affect the bilateral agenda but also impact vital U.S. national security and geostrategic interests.
There is much in López Obrador’s domestic agenda to criticize. From the outset of his administration, the gravest danger was always going to be his vision of an imperial presidency and the whittling away of the checks and balances and autonomous institutions that a generation of Mexicans painstakingly spent several decades building. The president is now doubling down on that threat. Whether it’s the judicial branch, regulators, autonomous institutions or academia, they have all been targeted, tarred and feathered from the presidential bully pulpit as “neoliberal” stakeholders built to favor “elites,” “toffs,” and the status quo ante. Government agencies, civil service bodies, and their capabilities and bandwidth have all been eviscerated.
And as Mexico moves into the halfway mark of López Obrador’s term, his “hugs, not bullets” paradigm has claimed more lives than former President Felipe Calderon’s “war on drugs”, militarizing public policies in a way not seen since the country’s post-revolutionary era in the late 1920s, while his “honesty” threatens to be more onerous to the viability of the Mexican state than former President Enrique Peña Nieto’s “corruption.” Moreover, during his three years in office, the president has sought to weaken Mexico’s institutions so that they cannot constrain him. But that also means he cannot rely on them to generate growth, mitigate the cost of the pandemic, resolve social conflicts, tackle rising public insecurity, take advantage of Mexico’s geostrategic assets, or even facilitate his eventual exit from office and ensure what he is most determined to leave behind: a legacy. By the end of his term in 2024, policymakers in Washington might well find themselves asking, “Who, when, and why did we lose Mexico?”
López Obrador deserves some blame for the current state of affairs. For one thing, he openly bet on Trump’s reelection. In 2020, he traveled to Washington in the midst of the U.S. presidential campaign and unctuously praised Trump in a Rose Garden ceremony. The trip had been billed as a celebration of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the trade agreement that replaced NAFTA. Even though Democratic lawmakers had been instrumental in its passage, López Obrador did not deign to meet them. Nor did he make a push on Capitol Hill last fall when he, Biden, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met for the North American Leaders’ Summit—the first gathering of the countries’ leaders in more than five years. The contrast with Trudeau was striking: the prime minister visited with congressional leaders in both parties and gave a speech at one of Washington’s prominent think tanks.
López Obrador, furthermore, was one of the last world leaders to congratulate Biden on his victory in 2020. He then blithely offered political asylum to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, disregarding the damage Assange had done to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. The message to Democrats and Biden was clear: López Obrador has deep and ingrained misgivings about them.
This distrust stems in part from his 2006 bid for the Mexican presidency, which he deems was stolen from him in a fraudulent election. López Obrador believes Democrats—because of what he believed at the time should have been a shared political orientation—ought to have publicly supported his contention; he holds a grudge since. Trump also gave the Mexican president free rein in his domestic policies as long as he aided Trump’s strategy of limiting immigration through the Mexican border. López Obrador kowtowed to Trump’s threats of punitive tariffs on Mexican exports unless Mexico did more to stem the flow of Central American migrants. He deployed the National Guard to deport them before they could cross the border, tacitly enabling the implementation of the so-called “Remain in Mexico” policy, also known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, forcing third-country immigrants applying for asylum in the United States to wait in Mexico indefinitely while their claims were being processed. The implicit quid pro quo was that the Trump administration would stay silent about what was happening domestically south of the border. López Obrador, with his Westphalian view of international relations and national sovereignty, considers these to be solely domestic issues. He was therefore concerned that Biden, who has extensive knowledge of and experience in Latin America, would be more inclined to speak up.
Mexico has long punched below its weight in the international arena.
López Obrador is part of a long succession of Mexican presidents who have led the country to punch below its weight in the international arena. A combination of navel-gazing and lack of purpose, ambition, budget, and overarching grand strategy have all meant that when it comes to global or even hemispheric affairs, its diplomatic payload was woefully puny, particularly compared with other emerging economies and regional powers. But now with López Obrador’s disdain for foreign policy and his general austerity drive, the nation’s international footprint is diminishing further and Mexico is punching below its weight in global affairs. And this cannot be good for U.S.-Mexican ties.
Much needs to happen to build a truly strategic relationship between Mexico and the United States. For starters, U.S. policymakers in both the executive branch and Congress need to stop regarding Mexico as a strategic afterthought. Washington and Mexico City—and Ottawa, too—need to cooperate on transnational organized crime, transmigration flows, and energy security. And as Washington recalibrates its relationship with China, U.S. policymakers need to understand that goal will only be achieved if Mexico and Canada are an integral part of the strategy, particularly as it pertains to trade and competitiveness, the digital economy, and cybersecurity.
Going forward, the relationship needs to stand on three Cs: cooperate consistently; coordinate holistically across government agencies within each government and then across the border; and challenge one another when necessary. The reconvening of the North American summit last fall offers some hope. It was crucial to engage and coordinate strategies, given the disruptions to supply chains and production platforms in North America; the COVID-19 pandemic; continued degradation of the climate; and an unprecedented number of migrants and refugees on the move across the Americas. In the past, Canada tended to resist the trilateralization of North American ties (because, the thinking went, it detracted from its relationship with Washington) and Mexico tended to foster it (to provide a united front and leverage more pressure on their neighbor). Today, it appears the United States is the party most interested in trilateralizing the agenda. That is a smart strategy, because it might unite Canada and the United States in countering some of López Obrador’s worst policies, such as his moves on energy, which violate the USMCA and threaten to impede the region moving toward a green economy. A triangulated diplomacy—such as devising a hemispheric agreement on refugees and migrants—could help ensure the Biden administration does not frontally antagonize Mexico and jeopardize its willingness to continue supporting Biden’s main priority in the relationship: abating migration.
Octavio Paz, one of Mexico’s Nobel laureates, once said Mexicans and Americans had a hard time understanding each other because Americans didn’t know how to listen and Mexicans didn’t know how to speak up. The past three decades transformed that conversation, with Americans increasingly tuning in and Mexicans slowly learning how to voice their priorities. Now is the time for both countries to reengage in the relationship, jettison outdated perceptions, and invest strategic and diplomatic capital.