Mexico’s relationship with the United States is probably one of the most complex between two neighboring countries in the world. So much so that it is frequently said that for Mexico, the U.S. is considered internal politics and vice versa.
In just the last 12 months both countries have been involved in a series of challenges and conflicts related to migration, security, trade tariffs, supply chains and, of course, everything related to the health crisis caused by Covid-19 (including the repercussions in border crossings, closure of air routes, the decrease in the flow of tourists and the return of thousands of Mexicans and Americans to their home countries).
This is in some way normal, we are talking about two countries that exchange almost US $600 billion in trade, 1.2 million people cross their borders on a daily basis, they share a 1,954-mile border (with 47 crossing points), 11 million inhabitants of the U.S. are Mexican, and about 2 million Americans reside in Mexico; no crisis should be surprising, when there are so many issues on the line.
The big question is how do we approach the U.S.-Mexico relationship, with what tools and under what institutional architecture? How far do governments and institutional diplomacy go to bring the relationship to fruition? So many issues and so much complexity cannot be addressed solely from one front, without a long-term strategy or without using all the institutional channels available.
In the past, there have been “umbrella” mechanisms that have shaped and funneled conflicts and opportunities in the bilateral relationship. Mechanisms that allowed the flow of information between government officials, business leaders, and civil society. But most important of all, mechanisms that created a work strategy and set clear goals and objectives for both sides of the border.
This was the case of the High Level Economic Dialogue (HLED), an initiative of the Obama and the Peña Nieto Administrations introduced in 2013, which aimed to create jobs in North America, generate innovation, implement best business practices, improve border infrastructure, and promote sectoral clusters such as in automotive and aerospace. It even set tangible goals in terms of entrepreneurship and higher education. The HLED also enabled a greater business relationship through the CEO Dialogue, which years later would play an important role in the renegotiation of the North American trade agreement, and which is the only bilateral instrument that survived during the Trump Presidency.
The Merida Initiative created in 2008, although with different objectives, also generated this umbrella effect at the time. Coordination, communication and shared goals allowed the containment and resolution of conflicts in matters of security. From the outset, it allowed for full cabinet meetings and thus to evaluate the situation from various perspectives. This generated trust among government officials and facilitated the automatization of interaction between them.
The new USMCA trade agreement, coupled with the U.S. presidential election opens a window of opportunity for a new stage in the bilateral relationship, be it during a second term for President Trump or with the arrival of the Democratic party to the White House. The proposal to create a new bilateral mechanism of inclusive collaboration in which federal governments, state governments, mayors, the private sector, universities and civil society participate could be a turning point. It would allow both countries to approach contested issues from several points of view in order to work together for the benefit of both countries. Some of issues are complicated and a mechanism of this type is needed to deal with: the labor aspect under USMCA, climate change, border infrastructure, migration, and the relocation of supply chains, among others.
Here I want to focus on the importance of fostering a better relationship between Mexico’s state governments and municipalities and their counterparts in the U.S. Most of the public policies implemented in the bilateral relationship have an impact at the local level. Trade, remittances, migration, they all have a local sphere dimension. Therefore, without the active involvement of state governors and mayors, it will be very difficult to implement bilateral strategies that improve the quality of life of citizens in the U.S. and Mexico.
At the U.S.-Mexico Foundation we have set this as an objective for the coming years: to serve as a platform to unite more governors and mayors with their counterparts on the other side of the border that will enable them to generate long-term agendas and relationships. We need to know more about the people and communities directly affected and/or benefited by bilateral treaties and policies. Just a week ago we had the opportunity to serve as a bridge between the state of Jalisco in Mexico and the U.S. state of Colorado, bringing together both state governors and their teams to foster a much closer relationship.
The current Mexican Foreign Minister and the Mexico’s Ambassador to the U.S. have also mentioned the importance of bilateral relations at the state and local level, openly stressing it in public forums. We must work hand in hand with government, business and civil society to take advantage of everything that a relationship between Mexico and the U.S. can offer.
* Enrique Perret is the Director of The US-Mexico Foundation, a binational non-profit organization dedicated to fostering bilateral cooperation and improving the understanding between the United States and Mexico by activating key people in the relationship that once were dormant. Twitter: @enriqueperret