This past April, Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.)—long Mexico's fiercest critic and a man not known for his internationalist credentials—took an unusual trip. Helms went to Mexico City with colleagues in tow, where he convened the first-ever meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on foreign soil. The death of one-party rule in Mexico, Helms declared, had initiated "a new era of cooperation [with the United States] on matters such as immigration, drugs, trade, and the promotion of human rights in Cuba."

The senators' visit and the language that accompanied it would have been inconceivable barely a year ago—as would have Helms' fast friendship with Mexico's new foreign minister, a self-proclaimed "man of the left" named Jorge Castañeda. For decades, the U.S.-Mexico relationship was a wary one, characterized by mutual distrust and only reluctant cooperation. But that is now changing. With the advent of democratic government, Mexico is turning its back on its history of isolationism and its fiercely noninterventionist foreign policy. The country has begun to look beyond its borders, trying to spur development and help resolve problems throughout Latin America while pursuing a robust partnership with the United States—a neighbor with which Mexico was once at odds on nearly every issue.

The opportunities this turnaround presents have not been lost on Washington. President George W. Bush, comfortable with Mexico from his days as Texas governor and eager to court the burgeoning Latino vote, has declared his desire for a "special relationship" between the two countries. To this end, shortly after taking office Bush broke with tradition by choosing Mexico for his first foreign visit. In his first months as president, Bush met with a string of Latin American leaders and traveled to Quebec City to promote hemispheric free trade. While there, he also announced that Mexican President Vicente Fox would be the first foreign leader to make a state visit to the Bush White House.

When they met in February at Fox's ranch in San Cristobal, Mexico, the two men created an unprecedented top-level working group on migration headed by Castañeda and Minister of Government Santiago Creel along with Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft. Bush also uttered words that were music to Mexican ears, acknowledging that the two countries' mutual drug problem derived from U.S. demand.

The meeting, on which Mexico had pinned its hopes for reintroducing itself to the world, was overshadowed by the U.S. bombing of Iraq the same day. But unlike the Mexican news media, which denounced the bombing, Mexico's Foreign Office declared its empathy for Bush's "global responsibilities" and actually blessed the American attack.

This gesture was the most striking aspect of the entire encounter, and it testifies to the revolutionary nature of the new foreign policy emanating from Mexico City. Mexico's decision to start actively collaborating with the United States will have powerful ramifications throughout the Americas, especially in the troubled Andean region. And it may forever change Mexico's place in the world.


In the weeks after pulling off his shocking election upset on July 2, 2000, Fox hopscotched around the hemisphere, first visiting the Southern Cone, where he emphasized that his friendliness with Washington would not stand in the way of an active Latin American diplomacy; then travelling to Montreal and to Washington, D.C., where he called for open U.S.-Mexican borders; then to Central America, where he unveiled a plan to link the region with southern Mexico via superhighways, railways, airports, pipelines, and an electric-power grid; and then to the Andes, where he launched a coalition effort to combat drug cartels. Fox visited Colombia twice, naming a special envoy to engage that country's warring camps. And in December, he used his inaugural celebrations to sooth tensions between Colombia's president, Andres Pastrana, and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, which had been strained by the spread of Colombia's leftist insurgency and Chavez's overtures to the Colombian guerrillas.

Fox's regional diplomacy dovetailed with his ongoing campaign to win Mexico the Latin American seat on the U.N. Security Council in 2002. In the past, although it joined with developing-world majorities in the General Assembly to promote North-South dialogue and condemn Zionism as racism (following the lead of Arab countries), Mexico did not even bother to compete in Security Council elections on the grounds that the body was dominated by Washington.

The day after his inauguration, Fox signed an agreement with the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to train Mexican human rights monitors for domestic service. A month later, Mexico dropped its steadfast objections to U.N. peacekeeping operations and pledged future participation. These gestures provided early hints that the Fox administration was in the process of revising the foreign policy scriptures of the Mexican Revolution. For the 71 years it was dominated by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Mexico had championed an expansive and stern view of national sovereignty and nonintervention. Under that doctrine, Mexico led opposition to U.S. interventions in Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and Panama; supported the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile; and became communist Cuba's staunchest backer in the western hemisphere.

In March, however, at a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Castañeda renounced the central tenet of Mexico's anti-interventionist doctrine: the supremacy of national sovereignty. "The exercise of sovereignty," Castañeda said, "cannot be used as an excuse to justify any violation of rights. ... Human rights constitute values that are both absolute and universal." Abuses in any nation are therefore a legitimate concern of the international community, he declared. Furthermore, he insisted that promoting respect for human rights is incumbent on all nations and "cannot be contingent upon the will of a single government." This wholesale revision of Mexican foreign policy doctrine came in the course of a campaign by Mexico to persuade Latin American countries to condemn Cuban human rights violations at the U.N. commission. The debate left Castañeda—a former communist—and the Cuban foreign minister trading insults.

The "moral authority" for Mexico's new activist foreign policy, Castañeda has stressed, derives from the country's decision to overthrow one-party rule. The July 2000 elections signified not just a change in government, but a shift from an authoritarian to a democratic regime—one that has promised to honor human rights at home and abroad.


It would be misleading to depict Fox's election as a sudden break with a rotten past. Mexico's ongoing transition to free markets and democracy is notable for its length and its many parents: leftists in the 1968 student movement; conservative opposition reformers from Fox's National Action Party (PAN), who began winning local elections in 1983; and a technocratic elite within the dominant PRI. Without the reforms put in place by the last PRI president, Ernesto Zedillo, Fox would never have been able to win in the first place.

Once the transition began, closer relations with the United States followed inexorably. After suffering a debt crisis in 1982, Mexico decided to dig itself out of its financial hole by making its exports competitive. Successive administrations curbed inflation, sharply reduced the public deficit, joined the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now the World Trade Organization), slashed tariffs, deregulated key sectors of the economy, privatized much of the public sector, and put Mexico on a taut fiscal leash. These changes all helped shift Mexico's economic orientation northward. After making fruitless attempts to interest Western European countries (which were too focused on Eastern Europe) and Japan (which turned out to be preoccupied with its Asian neighbors), President Carlos Salinas (1988-94) recognized that Mexico's economic future lay with the United States. Mexico discovered that, under the pressure of globalization, the post-Cold War world was dividing into regional economic blocs. The United States, long a feared colossus of the North, beckoned.

Salinas wanted to keep the PRI in power to carry out his economic modernization program. But that meant combining an open economy with a closed political system, something that could not be managed in a country neighboring and courting the United States—as Salinas' envoys learned while lobbying the U.S. Congress for passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Not only did that lobbying begin to erode Mexico's doctrine of absolute nonintervention, but Mexico also had to acquiesce to being lobbied in turn. Soon Mexican political reformers found friends among U.S. human rights groups and Mexican-American associations, and the U.S. media started shining a spotlight on Mexican elections. Even American legislators with little in common with such "Mexico bashers" as Senator Helms began lecturing Mexico that free trade is a club for democracies only.

On January 1, 1994, the day NAFTA went into effect, Zapatista guerrillas opened fire in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. The rebels were to prove reluctant warriors but ingenious spinners, and they quickly became international media darlings. Government supporters brandished the doctrine of nonintervention at the rebels' sympathizers as well as at human rights monitors, foreign journalists, and election observers, insisting that the rights of indigenous communities, electoral irregularities, and official impunity were internal matters. But democratic reformers rejoined that the revolution's doctrine of nonintervention had been perverted. Formulated to defend change in a weak country, it had become a shield for the oppressive PRI system.

Another factor that helped tip the scales was the fact that, with the end of the Cold War, Mexico had lost much of its geopolitical cachet. No longer was Mexican stability so vital that Washington would overlook the nature of its neighbor's regime. Mexico quickly became a target for criticisms from the American right, which worried about drug traffic, and the American left, which worried about human rights. The shield of nonintervention began showing more holes than a chain-link fence.

And on July 2, 2000, that fence collapsed. After producing decades of headlines about civilian massacres, currency devaluations, corruption scandals, and drug trafficking, Mexico suddenly became the first international feel-good story of the new millennium. The outspoken, strapping, six-foot-four Fox could not have presented a starker contrast with the dark, brooding Mexican depicted in countless American films. In his cowboy boots, the new Mexican president looked like an archetypal Western hero.

Within weeks, Castañeda came to Washington to cash in a "democratic dividend," declaring that with a freely elected government, Mexico "no longer had anything to be ashamed of." Noninterventionism was abandoned. Zapatista sympathizers, human rights observers, election monitors, and journalists would be welcomed into the country. U.S. officials were invited to run security checks on Mexican drug enforcement agents. "Go ahead, expose my faults," Mexico appeared to say. "That will only help me change."


In Mexican circles today the troubled Andes region evokes memories of the Central American civil wars of the 1980s. But now the revolutionary government is located in Venezuela, not Sandinista Nicaragua, and the neighboring civil war is being fought in Colombia, not El Salvador. Still, the problems are alarming. Chavez has scorned representative democracy, cornered political power, befriended Fidel Castro, paid court to Mu'ammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein, and called China "the big sister of the Venezuelan revolution." Last year, without bothering to inform the Colombian government, Chavez sent an envoy to hold seven meetings with the Colombian rebels. Ecuador, Panama, and Brazil now worry that the Colombian war could spill into their territories. The U.S.-led military and economic aid package known as "Plan Colombia" has relieved these fears for some but heightened them for others.

Enter Fox, whose Andean diplomacy illustrates how far Mexico has come since wars ravaged Central America less than two decades ago. In those days, Mexico was the Sandinistas' key regional backer and helped keep their regime afloat with emergency oil supplies. And it was in this context that Castañeda, when his father was foreign minister, took his first try at diplomacy. In 1982, the younger Castañeda engineered an agreement on El Salvador between Mexico and France, whereby the latter two recognized the guerrillas and pressed for power-sharing negotiations. The guerrillas were allowed to use Mexico City as a diplomatic and media headquarters and met frequently with the Castañedas to plot their diplomatic strategy. The Salvadoran government and Washington were outraged.

Today, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) also maintains an office in Mexico City. The analogy stops there, however. Fox has informed the guerrillas that they will wear out their welcome if they fail to pursue Pastrana's peace plan. Fox has also declared "unconditional support" for Plan Colombia, rallying hemispheric and European backing for the effort. Not on speaking terms when Fox took office, Chavez and Pastrana have now met several times at Fox's behest. Chavez has even consented to join the group of "friendly nations" (also including Canada, Cuba, France, Italy, Mexico, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland) supporting the peace talks.

Fox has also persuaded Chavez and Pastrana to revive the "G-3" group, which links Latin America's three major oil exporters. Established to supply oil to Central America as part of the effort to mediate conflicts in the region, the G-3 will now use discount oil to ease Andean frictions. Worried by Pastrana's declining popularity and the growth of right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia, Mexico hopes to see the peace process institutionalized by the time of Colombia's elections next year.

During the 1980s, the danger of Soviet encroachment in Central America concerned U.S. policymakers, although it did not much worry the Mexicans. Today there is no extrahemispheric threat in the Andes. But Mexico and the United States are both concerned with the unholy alliance between drug traffickers and guerrillas there. Two-thirds of U.S.-bound Colombian cocaine bribes its way through Mexico, and Fox fears that drug money will thwart his efforts to control corruption and crime.

Out of this mutual concern, the Fox and Bush administrations have developed a "good-cop, bad-cop" routine for the Andes. Mexico keeps its distance from the military facets of Plan Colombia but rallies diplomatic support for the peace process. Among Andean heads of state, Mexico's influence has been enhanced by Fox's intimacy with Bush. But Mexico has considerable clout in Latin America in its own right and can influence Chavez and the Colombian guerrillas in ways that the United States cannot.


For all its willingness to cooperate, Mexico does not approach the United States on bended knee; it is neither a surrogate nor a subsidiary. And Mexico's new opening to its northern neighbor reflects not dependency but maturity. Mexico can now pursue its own interests whether or not they coincide with those of the United States.

Still, differences persist, and Cuba remains one of them. Bush is firmly committed to the Cuban embargo. Despite its recent criticism of Castro, however, Mexico continues to promote investment, trade, and tourism with the island, where it has a variety of business interests. And Havana maintains powerful friends in Mexico City; before Mexico abstained from an April vote at the U.N. Human Rights Commission condemning Cuba, the Mexican Congress passed a resolution on Cuba's behalf. This setback to Castañeda demonstrated the ongoing strength of Cuban-Mexican ties, as well as the new power that Mexico's legislature is starting to wield as the country moves toward a separation of powers.

The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a project dear to Bush, may become another source of disagreement. Mexico is reluctant to share its privileged access to the vast North American market with 31 competitors. So far, Fox has publicly supported the FTAA, but he has not lobbied for it in Latin America, where Brazil and Venezuela remain strongly opposed to the idea. And it remains unclear whether Fox will try to coax these countries into the accord.

Instead of a hemisphere-wide trade pact, Fox prefers to talk about an enhanced "NAFTA plus," what he calls "opening the border[s] to [Mexican] labor as well as goods." Fox recognizes that this will not happen until Mexican wages approach those of its more developed partners, decreasing the risk of mass migration. But there is no telling how long that will take. In the meantime, emigration remains an economic and political safety valve for any Mexican government and thus a very sensitive issue between Mexico and the United States.

Indeed, engaging Washington on migration has been one of Fox's top priorities. Mexico's president seeks improved border safety, a new guest-worker program, more permanent visas, and the "regularization" of Mexican illegal immigrants in the United States. Last year's U.S. census figures suggest that illegal immigrants from Mexico may number more than 5 million. Immigration critics in the United States oppose the granting of amnesty, which would be the first step toward permanent residency and citizenship, to people who have broken U.S. laws by entering the country without permission. But "regularization," as Fox has proposed, would sidestep that fight by ensuring only basic health, education, and labor rights for illegal Mexican immigrants. They would then be able to join unions, rent apartments, obtain drivers' licenses, and work without the threat of deportation.

Fox's proposal would put Mexican immigrants in a special category. But is the United States prepared to give Mexicans special standing? And is it prepared for the complaints and petitions that would follow from other countries—many of which the Bush administration hopes to incorporate into the FTAA?

Whatever the answer, the fact is that Mexico already occupies a special category. The United States and Mexico have quietly become integrated to a degree that would surprise those who live outside of the American Southwest. The Bush-Fox intimacy transcends personal chemistry and reflects the structural convergence of their two countries, a marriage stemming from economics, demographics, and politics.

Mexico has already become the United States' second-largest trading partner, and many analysts predict it will overtake Canada within a decade. NAFTA has become a fact of life that no major party on either side of the border seeks to reverse. Mexico is now the top export market for the two most populous American states, California and Texas. Meanwhile, fully one-third of Mexico's $500 billion GNP was derived from exports last year, with 88 percent of those going to the United States. Exports account for half of the more than three million Mexican jobs created since NAFTA took hold. Even dirt-poor Chiapas has opened trade offices in Texas.

NAFTA compelled leading Mexican corporations to stay competitive by raising the quality of their merchandise and marketing to world levels, although some labor and environmental practices have remained subpar. As a result, Mexico climbed from being the world's 26th largest exporter in 1993 to the 8th largest in 1999, and it is on track to soon pull ahead of South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

NAFTA has also locked Mexico into the U.S. economy, making it virtually impossible for the country to revert to its protectionist past. Maquiladoras, plants that assemble materials for duty-free export, have spread southward into the interior of Mexico, nearly to the Guatemalan border. No longer assembling only low-tech goods, these factories now produce on contract for the most advanced sectors of the U.S. information industry. Meanwhile, electric grids and natural gas pipelines now connect the two countries. Indeed, by the end of this year Mexico will supply 200 megawatts of energy a day to California, enough to serve 200,000 homes. Eventually Mexico could make a substantial contribution to solving California's energy crisis, although for that to happen Fox must reform his country's notoriously inefficient and corrupt state-run energy sector.

The 2,000-mile-long border between the United States and Mexico is already the world's most heavily trafficked. In March, representatives from Texas and eight Mexican states discussed a plan to build new roads linking present and future border crossings with inland cities. Other large cities, such as El Paso, Laredo, and McAllen, Texas, and Agua Prieta, Ciudad Juarez, and Mexicali, Mexico, are increasingly joined in common projects and are booming on both sides of the border. A "technology and education partnership" has been established that connects all major California universities to dozens of campuses in Mexico via high-speed Internet links.

Having expanded continuously for six decades—during which the typical Mexican immigrant turned from a sojourner into a settler—migration from Mexico to the United States has now become institutionalized. Networks of relatives and friends of emigrants have spread into virtually every part of Mexico, making immigration to the United States relatively impervious to changes in government policy or the economy. The approximately 400,000 Mexicans who settle in the United States annually have formed large concentrations in California, Texas, Arizona, and other southwestern states. But there are also a million Mexicans in the Chicago area. Last year's census confirmed that communities of Mexican workers have mushroomed in such distant states as North Carolina, Georgia, Nebraska, and New York.

As a result of such movement, today three out of every five Latinos in the United States are of Mexican origin, and American Latinos, at 35 million, have already overtaken African Americans as the country's largest minority. Probably more than half a dozen new Latino legislators will emerge from congressional redistricting by 2002 in accordance with the new census. And presidential campaigns will increasingly focus on Latino voters, who are concentrated in the electorally rich states of California, Texas, Illinois, New York, and Florida.

Mexico's political system has also moved closer to the U.S. system. Much like Mexico's Congress, the Mexican Supreme Court has recently gained independence and new leverage over the executive. Governors and mayors have also won a degree of autonomy from the federal government hardly imaginable in the heyday of the PRI's centralized reign. And Fox's victory demonstrated the recent consolidation of the independent media and of civil society in Mexico. U.S. and Mexican nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) now collaborate on issues such as the environment, health and safety, business, labor, human rights, and democracy. Mexican immigrants living in the United States send both dollars (as much as an estimated $10 billion this year) and an American public sensibility—including demands for American-style accountability—back home to local villages.

Although Mexico today still grapples with the painful memory of many years of often unjust treatment at the hands of United States, members of the Mexican political class, as well as most ordinary citizens, have accepted the idea that their future lies to the north. Many welcome this fact—and not just the majority of those Mexicans who have relatives in the United States. As the Fox government invites U.S. officials, NGOs, and the American media to assist in the massive developmental, institutional, and cultural tasks facing Mexico, this relationship will only grow stronger.


Many observers still wonder whether Fox's ambitions will prove quixotic. Will the human rights watchdogs in Rome and San Francisco who currently bombard Mexican embassies and consulates with faxes and postcards criticizing various abuses find the patience Fox will need as he takes on the country's many ingrained problems? Will Fox himself, who faces an opposition majority in the Congress, succeed in outflanking the beneficiaries of the old patronage system? Among the dizzying array of objectives the Fox government has set for itself are peace in Chiapas, war "to the death" against the drug lords and organized crime, overcoming corruption, reforming the constitution, modernizing the tax and fiscal systems, opening up the energy sector, combating poverty, improving education, and restructuring the country's migration and foreign policies. Now, with the weakening of the U.S. economy, Fox must launch these campaigns amid a slump. Indeed, in his first few months in office, Fox succeeded in putting his stamp only on foreign policy; his other initiatives, such as the Chiapas peace plan and tax reform, have bogged down.

Fox's Mexico presents a familiar picture in the post-Cold War age: like Russia, it is a democracy without the rule of law. In the early twentieth century, autocracies in both countries were toppled almost simultaneously by violent revolution. Over the ensuing years, highly centralized one-party regimes ruled both Russia and Mexico. And each has now become, via a different route, an electoral democracy that must cope with immense stresses: entrenched corruption, authoritarian traditions, political gridlock, recurrent financial crises, centrifugal tensions, and the depredations of a criminal underworld drawn in part from the old ruling apparatus. Mexico's crime wave, appalling in Mexico City, Guadalajara, and along the border, is generally less highly organized than Russia's. But Fox must contend with powerful drug cartels feeding the enormous U.S. market.

Could Vicente Fox prove another Boris Yeltsin, a magnet for the hopes of his compatriots and Washington but incapable of building institutions or consolidating democratic gains? The commitment by much of Mexico's political class to push for reform and integration with the United States will work in Fox's favor. So will the links that have been forged between ordinary Mexicans and the United States through migration, travel, and the media.

Moreover, Fox's recent overtures to the United States stand in sharp contrast to Russian President Vladimir Putin's attempts to block international human rights monitors and to stifle the press. Fox has invited U.S. government agencies (such as the FBI) and NGOs to help Mexico move toward the rule of law by enhancing the protection of human and property rights, creating an independent and impartial judiciary, establishing effective law enforcement that itself obeys the law, and providing transparency in the conduct of government. Mexico's national security adviser, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser—who crusaded against PRI corruption as a legislator and now coordinates Fox's governance and law-enforcement policies—has gone so far as to publicly invite U.S. officials to vet Mexican drug agents. "If I belonged to the FBI," volunteered Aguilar Zinser, "I would not trust the Mexican police." Such candor instills confidence.


Washington's new partnership with Mexico City offers Bush a chance to combine the realism of Richard Nixon with the idealism of Woodrow Wilson. Nixon's foreign policy relied heavily on strategic alliances with regional powers. But those powers tended to be tyrannies, like General Nguyen Van Thieu's South Vietnam and the Shah's Iran, and thus such policies led to a clash with America's democratic values and caused problems at home. Mexico, on the other hand, is now the hemisphere's key democratic experiment, one rapidly converging with the United States. Supporting Fox's Mexico is one way to promote a foreign policy that stresses democracy. Yet it also offers tremendous practical advantages to Washington, providing it a key Latin American ally and one unlikely to embarrass it through authoritarian excesses.

Much of Latin America has yet to enjoy the economic rewards that Washington promised liberalization would bring. Now the U.S. economic downturn will delay those benefits even further. Such delays are one reason why leftist populists and authoritarians are staging comebacks in Brazil and Nicaragua. Should they prevail, they may be tempted to team up with Chavez, Castro, and the Colombian guerrillas to form a radical alliance that could shift the balance of power in Latin America, dooming the FTAA, the Colombian peace process, and Washington's drug war while reversing democratic advances.

If that temptation arises, Latin American democrats can now offer a new response. The region today faces a choice. On the one hand, it could opt for authoritarianism, statism, and narco-terrorism; on the other, it could follow not the American way—with its imperialist overtones—but the new Mexican path. The burgeoning partnership with Mexico will thus greatly strengthen Washington's hand—especially if it means that that hand need not be played in the first place.

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  • ROBERT S. LEIKEN is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author, most recently, of Why Nicaragua Vanished, which will be published later this year.
  • More By Robert S. Leiken