King Canute of Denmark (c. 990 A.D.) is famous for setting his throne by the sea shore and ordering the incoming waves to halt. He ended up being drenched while surrounded by his entire court. Canute was ordering the waves to stop not because he thought they would, but to prove to his obsequious courtiers that they would not. It was the ultimate demonstration of the limits of human power. This is how Mexicans should view the relationship with the U.S., its neighbor to the north, and in general with the rest of the world. The whole planet is changing and the elements that conferred certainty in past decades have eroded.
A glance at what is happening all over the world beyond the Covid-19 pandemic reveals patterns of behavior that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago. The most notable change is undoubtedly the change that U.S. society has undergone in the form of the election of President Donald Trump. A change that is even so more important for Mexico. The country that was leading the world with an array of ideas and institutions relative to trade, investment and international relations since the end of World War II, the so-called “world order”, abdicated its leadership and is now the source of interminable conflicts and disturbances in the international arena.
Trump was not the product of chance. Like Brexit and other political happenings in the European sphere (Poland, Hungary, Italy, etc.), it reflects imbalances and the disillusionment of the citizens of their respective countries due to factors ranging from migration to those generated by globalization. For many years, the U.S. and China developed an integration outline -which Niall Ferguson called “Chimerica”- which gave rise to strong malfunctions in industrial employment, wreaking havoc within U.S. society.
Many towns in the heart of the U.S. manufacturing belt (dating back to the 19th century and typically in the Midwest) were dependent on one large company in industries like coal, steel and automobiles that dominated their work life. These communities were devastated when that single employer decided to close down due to a variety of reasons including technological change, labor costs or environmental regulations. People who had devoted their lives to the company suddenly found themselves without a job, with few skills, and little ability to adapt to the “new economy” mostly in the digital world. While there are countless examples of towns making successful adjustment to the new reality (as in Rochester, New York, after the fall of Kodak), there is a vast number of places that were not. Many of these towns ended up engulfed in alcohol and drugs. Trump did not invent that reality, he solely converted it into electoral might.
Many people are waiting for the day that Trump leaves the White House and the world returns to normal. Unfortunately, while the stridency, the manners and the unpresidential language could be attenuated with the potential arrival of new U.S. Administration, the structural factors that swept Trump into the presidency will remain. Whether the right or the left comes to power, the contentious issues that that U.S. is enduring today are not likely to abate, even if they acquire other forms. The case of China makes this evident: both Republicans and Democrats have reached the conclusion that they are up against a hostile power and they are beginning to act, in unison, under that premise.
For Mexico, the U.S.-China conflict presents opportunities to secure supply chains and to attract foreign investment into new ares. However, it is also a wake-up call to urgently assess the key factors upon which Mexico’s dynamic export sector is based on. Also, it is a wake-up call to temper those elements in the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship that are so disruptive. In particular, Mexico must design a comprehensive strategy of rapprochement with the U.S. regions and communities who tend to see Mexico as a close and reliable partner. This for the sake of protecting and guaranteeing Mexico’s own interests in the U.S. This would be even more important if Joe Biden were to win the upcoming presidential election.
In contrast with China, Mexico has two sources of conflict with the U.S. that are manageable but which Mexico has not managed. On the one hand, there are the two issues that have become emblematic of the U.S.-Mexico relationship under Trump and that he has exploited shamelessly: migration and Mexico’s trade surplus with the U.S. (including manufacturing plants moving to Mexico). These are old issues, but Mexico has done practically nothing politically in the U.S. to neutralize these source of conflict, not in DC but in Peoria. Regardless of whether Trump wins or loses come November, this is an open front that Mexico must act upon.
The other source of conflict between the U.S. and Mexico is deeper and more complex because it concerns Mexico’s own domestic deficits and insufficiencies. Many of these issues are evident in the U.S.-Mexico border but do not originate there: narcotics, insecurity and the the lack of legal certainty. These are also old issues and did not began in President López Obrador’s term. However, it is his responsibility to address them. This is an area where, as the Mexican President likes to say, a good domestic policy is good foreign policy.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI) and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @lrubiof