The last four years have been unusual for the Mexico-U.S. relationship. The immigration, security and trade pillars of the bilateral agenda were unsettled by President Donald Trump’s approach to Mexico. Yet, the relationship has shown remarkable resilience. This is the result of several factors: the fact that too much is at stake (interdependence), that the relationship by enlarge works for both sides (mutually beneficial), that we have learned the benefits of dialogue and rules to manage it (institutionalized), that all sorts of domestic players weigh on it in addition to the Presidents (decentralized) and, finally, that it impacts the daily lives of millions of Mexicans and Americans, frequently making it a domestic issue (inter-mestic). To be sure, this does not mean we don’t have differences. It means that we are more inclined to try to solve them together than not.
Likewise, awareness, media coverage, analysis and naturally debate about the bilateral relationship has increased in Mexico and in the United States. In my view this is positive, if sometimes challenging for those directly involved. Mexicans have followed closely the U.S. election, with attention now centered on President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s reaction. Results call for Mexico to congratulate Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on their victory –as so many world leaders and even Republican figures have done. In my view, congratulating Biden and Harris is a matter of foreign policy choice and not one of intervention in domestic affairs.
A reset of the U.S.-Mexico relationship is plausible if not likely. For the reasons previously discussed, this reset might not be as deep as some hope for and others fear, but it is worth reviewing some areas that deserve attention.
Over the years, the Mexican government has remained active in consular protection, repatriation tasks and amicus briefs in legal cases, but it has been ambivalent in dealing with the prospect of immigration reform in the United States. There is no question that only the American people and institutions can determine the immigration system that is appropriate for them, and Mexico’s involvement could easily become politically toxic. Nevertheless, should a reform take traction –through legislation or administratively– Mexicans will look closely at how their government positions itself. I think that Mexico’s condition as main trading partner, neighbor, and important source of foreign nationals in the United States cannot be overlooked and opens the door for dialogue and perhaps negotiation. The real question is how Mexico can present itself as part of the solution and not as a problem and determining what it is willing to put on the negotiation table. We must be mindful of two factors in this regard. First, economic recession and unemployment has traditionally prompted more emigration from Mexico into the United States, and recent numbers from the Department of Homeland Security do show an upward trend. Second, in the past, simply the possibility of immigration reform in the U.S. has triggered changes in the migration patterns from Mexico and Central America. Therefore, building a better framework to address regional migration might well be needed sooner rather than later.
The notion that the illicit flow of drugs, money, weapons, and people can only be addressed by accepting a shared responsibility has fortunately gained ground in the past 20 years or so. To put it plainly: supply and demand are two components of the same equation. Security and law enforcement cooperation has shown slow progress and mixed results. It is never easy, but both countries simply cannot go without it. For some time now, there has been talk about revamping the Merida Initiative which despite its shortcomings, has been the most accomplished bilateral security cooperation mechanism. Furthermore, the recent arrests of high-level Mexican officials created a shock wave and left people wondering how cooperation will move forward. But in any case, these events call for more but not less anti-crime cooperation. They imply the need for more transparency on what we do together. There are several fronts that seem relevant to me: building a truly shared diagnosis that sets a long-term strategic plan and for which both governments are accountable, concentrating on actions that help disrupt the business activities of organized crime and strengthening institutions in Mexico. In this endeavor, building trust is difficult and rebuilding it even more so. In general, the U.S. has sought greater presence and influence in Mexico’s anti-crime efforts. We should not be necessarily opposed to this. It is probably more helpful to seek influence and presence on anti-crime efforts north of the border.
The United States, Mexico and Canada Agreement (USMCA) was no small feat given the circumstances. In the end, it garnered bipartisan support and according to Gallup around 80% of adults in the U.S. view it as positive. In Mexico, the deal was hailed as a success by the López Obrador administration and regarded by most Mexicans as a certainty in a time of economic uncertainty. All this should be valued, especially considering the Democrats track record on trade and given that Senator Harris herself voted against the agreement. In the immediate future, the main challenge is continuing with a successful implementation. The agreement’s provisions on labor and environmental standards as well as the enforcement tools represent a victory for Democrats. However, we will likely see controversies in this area soon. In medium term, the challenge lies in the fact that the agreement will be reviewed six years from its entering into force. This review mechanism can serve as way to adjust the agreement without a high risk of loosing it. NAFTA’s fate appears to give us that lesson, but diligent and early work on this is needed.
Sharing the UN Security Council
Mexico was elected once again to sit as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council for the 2021 – 2022 period. I applaud Mexico’s government decision to seek this place, which by the way has been presented as a diplomatic triumph. I do not share the traditional view that sitting in the Security Council will necessarily put our foreign policy at odds with that of the United States. Having said that, there is a complex geopolitical setting worldwide and how we handle the Security Council can be a factor in the overall relationship with the U.S. The López Obrador foreign policy follows a strict interpretation of the Constitutional principle of non-intervention, but the Security Council itself legitimizes intervention.
Diplomacy and dialogue
Several recent studies and opinions point to the fact that a new cabinet-level dialogue mechanism is needed. I share this opinion because the lack of intergovernmental coordination and follow-up have often hindered a functional and successful bilateral relationship. Ideally, given the weight of the economic ties between both countries, this mechanism should articulate with the private sector of both countries. There are plenty of lessons from the last 30 years, from the Binational Commission, the High-Level Economic Dialogue and the Security and Prosperity Partnership. It is systematic engagement what builds trust and brings opportunities, not the other way around.
* Gerónimo Gutiérrez Fernández is senior advisor at Covington and Burling, LLP and partner at BEEL Infrastructure. Twitter: @GERONIMO_GF