By Christopher Wilson*
After more than a year and a half as President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador has finally made his first trip abroad, coming to Washington, DC to visit President Donald Trump. The visit has been heavy on symbolism and light on substance.
AMLO began his day at the Lincoln Memorial, honoring one of the U.S. presidents most revered in Mexico. President López Obrador then traveled to the statue of Mexican President Benito Juárez, who took office in the same year and month as Lincoln and is a political hero in Mexico for his work to institutionalize liberal democracy and defend Mexican sovereignty.
The Mexican President went next to the White House for a socially-distant abrazo with U.S. President Donald Trump, whose popularity in Mexico is decidedly lower than that of the aforementioned former presidents. After a series of meetings between the presidents and other officials, the two released a joint statement celebrating the implementation of the USMCA and reaffirming the bilateral partnership. Though worthy of recognition for modernizing the agreement and restoring certainty to North American trade relations, the USMCA agenda is largely ceremonial since the deal was signed back in 2018.
For Trump, too, the image of the visit is very important. It is meant to show that he can have his cake and eat it too. He can threaten and bully Mexico when it comes to immigration and tariffs and still be chummy with the Mexican President. Just a day after the United States announced it would leave the World Health Organization and perhaps in the same week that President Trump will again move to rescind DACA, the visit allows Trump to look less isolated on the international stage and less hostile to Latinos in the United States.
What is missing also speaks volumes. The decision of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to stay home during the pandemic and away from the White House as new tariff threats are made against his country leaves an awkward hole in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement photo op. Also absent is a meeting between AMLO and Democratic leaders, who played a key role in the negotiation and passage of the trade agreement, or a meeting with Mexican migrants living in the United States despite their requests. These omissions leave AMLO open to critics suggesting the visit is meant to be a political favor to President Trump.
U.S. relations with Mexico are at least as important to Americans as any other bilateral relationship on the planet, and without a doubt the United States is Mexico’s foremost international partner. In 2019, each country was the other’s top trading partner, and with the USMCA negotiations finished there is once again space on the economic agenda for joint projects on innovation, entrepreneurship, workforce, and economic development in the border region. Both countries are facing a continuous and devastating increase in cases of COVID-19; greater cooperation is needed to improve care and prevention, align supply chain management, and prepare for a safe re-opening of the U.S.-Mexico border to non-essential travel. On security, efforts to reduce the damage done by opioids and organized crime is a question of life and death on both sides of the border. There has been extensive dialogue on managing migration in recent years, but much more work is needed to address root causes of migration in Central America and, to a lesser extent, in Mexico.
To sustain progress on each of these issues and the many more that comprise US-Mexico relations, institutional approaches are needed. A dinner with business leaders from both sides of the border is great, but restarting the High-Level Economic Dialogue (and re-engaging a private sector forum like the U.S.-Mexico CEO Dialogue) to consistently drive progress on economic issues and take advantage of potential synergies in our regional recovery from the COVID recession would be better. The Wilson Center recently partnered with the US-Mexico Foundation to host a policy retreat with six former U.S. ambassadors to Mexico and six former Mexican ambassadors to the United States, and the need to develop strong institutions to support the bilateral relationship was perhaps the most important conclusion coming out of the discussions.
Such a friendly, get-to-know-you kind of meeting would have been useful and appropriate in the immediate months after AMLO took office. Now, with both nations facing unprecedented health and economic crises, we need concrete actions and institutionalized cooperation.
* Christopher Wilson is Deputy Director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute Twitter: @Chris_E_Wilson