A good friend of mine from Mexico City moved to Washington last year to study international relations at a prestigious graduate school known for training some of the best and brightest minds of the US foreign policy establishment. Early in the fall semester, I asked her how it was going. She paused before responding; then her shoulders sagged, and she confided, “It’s been hard, no one cares about Mexico here.”
I laughed, relieved, she was fine. “Welcome to my world,” I told her. It’s frustrating to be a Mexicanist in DC, but you can’t take it personally. I urged her to learn about the things that do interest her classmates, not bang her head against the wall about the things that don’t; and share her Mexican perspective on these matters. She’s thriving now, after the initial shock; it’d be hard not to appreciate what a moment this is to study international relations in the belly of the beast, poring over transcripts of the “perfect” presidential phone call with Ukraine’s leader, witnessing the ensuing impeachment hearings it triggered, and then debating the propriety of a targeted assassination of an Iranian military leader, not to mention following the foreign policy debate amongst Democratic candidates vying for their party’s presidential nomination. All that in your first semester.
Mexico isn’t entirely off the radar screen. The US Congress managed to set aside its impeachment wars and partisan gridlock to ratify the USMCA, and we have in Donald Trump a president who obsesses over Mexico like none of his predecessors did (we should be careful what we wish for), and is prone, if left idle, to pick on his southern neighbor for political advantage.
And yet there remains, as anyone engaged in the cross-border relationship is aware, an asymmetry of attention in US-Mexico relations. Think of that familiar social media meme of the couple walking down the street, and the boyfriend looking over his shoulder at another woman. If the couple is our North American partnership, the other woman distracting Uncle Sam is Ukraine, Iran, Iraq, anywhere but home.
Mexico is not sexy to US foreign policy elites, even though it’s hugely important. And the reason it’s often neglected or taken for granted is itself underappreciated and counterintuitive: it’s because Mexico has been a largely benign, constructive neighbor to the US, which has allowed this superpower to focus its attention elsewhere. Those of us who care about the relationship need to find better ways of pointing this out.
Beyond foreign policy elites in DC, meanwhile, Mexico’s broader significance to the US economy, and to its culture and society, is increasingly apparent, as the two countries become ever more intertwined. Depicting Mexico’s role in the United States, across all walks of life, is a nuanced, complex and evolving story. And that story will be the central preoccupation of this “Greater Mexico” column over the coming months. I hope you will read it, and share your reactions as we go along, so that we may learn from each other.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America.Twitter: @AndresDCmtz