It comes as no surprise to anyone that the world is fast becoming dramatically complex. This is nothing new. During the past decade, all the world’s reference points of the last half century were eroded, called into question, or erased. What Mexicans are witnessing in their domestic politics has been taking place in the world at large. Just look at Brexit in Great Britain, the 2016 election of Donald Trump in the US, the far-right governments in several European nations, the attacks against the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the sudden rise of migration throughout the world and its repercussions for developed countries. All this happened even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Furthermore, sources of conflict have multiplied and many of the balancing agents -which at one point in time were numerous and also widely credible- have now practically disappeared. The context, one could say, has been altered or, to paraphrase Albert Einstein, “everything has changed except our way of thinking”.
Change affects all countries, but each responds to it according to its own set of circumstances, capabilities, and conditions. In some cases, their capacity of response depends on internal factors, in others on external circumstances. Electorates in many countries have tended to grow more polarized and to choose leaders previously unthinkable. Political systems that once produced weak governments, now make possible the emergence of “strong men,” even in countries with long and deep democratic roots and with solid systems of checks and balances. What seemed impossible not long ago is an everyday thing now.
In Mexico, we currently have a government with huge capacity for action that, however, has responded in contrasting ways to external phenomena. This was evident during the negotiation of the new USMCA trade agreement when it yielded to U.S. pressure very much like the previous administration did when talks started. Meanwhile, the Mexican government behaved with renewed activism when dealing with the crises in Venezuela and Bolivia. The administration has also being firm in its ludicrous reluctance to congratulate Joe Biden on his victory in the US presidential election. Countries act according to internal and external circumstances. The Mexican government has recognized its vulnerability vis-à-vis the North (the U.S.) while at the same time displaying rare confidence when dealing with the South (even enjoying domestic support despite political division).
However, one thing is how a country reacts to a particular situation and, a very different one, is to set a course of action. During the recent presentation of a policy paper (“Mexico and Central America: A Delayed Encounter”), the internationally-renowned migration expert Demetrios Papademetriou made two comments that are especially relevant for the present moment.
First, referring to migration but applicable to the entire world’s complexity, Papademetriou said that the problems the world is facing have a solution but that it requires cooperation among governments. Thus, it is necessary for the parties to share a minimum of mutual trust. The problem, Papademetriou went on to say, is that no national government can currently count on the trust of its population and there is even less trust among national governments themselves.
It is not a surprise to say that the current Mexican government subordinated Mexico’s old foreign policy principles and practices (some praiseworthy, others less so) in order to preserve superior objectives like economic viability. This was evident in 2019 when President Trump threatened to impose tariffs on Mexican exports to the U.S. if Mexico did not stopped the irregular flows of Central American migrants through its territory. Despite the criticisms, the López Obrador administration acted in the only way possible: ceding to Trump’s threats. The Mexican government did this less based on the asymmetry of power vis-à-vis the U.S., but rather thinking on the potential consequences for Mexican exports and on the peso exchange market, which would have destroyed Mexico’s economic stability in a flash.
Papademetriou’s second comment was about how problems need to be addressed following a carefully conceived, developed and proactive strategy because, in his words, “when you play catch-up, you never catch up.” Solutions are the result of an action plan that responds to the specific nature of the problems. As much as migrant source countries might would want it (or for that matter the U.S. and Europe), altering demographic trends is something that by definition can only be measured not in years but in generations. I can only be altered in the long run. To put it simply: irregular migration cannot be eliminated altogether in the short run even if President Trump wanted it.
This is also true for Mexico. The problems that the country faces can certainly become even more acute if a belic conflict flares up in the Middle East, if Central America’s insecurity expels more migrants, if the China-U.S. tension continues endlessly or a myriad other factors beyond Mexico’s control. Some of these factors could be turned into opportunities like in the case of the U.S. trade tensions with China. But it could also be in the case of a new conflict in the oil-rich Middle East. This of course, as long as the current Mexican administration stops putting into doubt the country’s landmark 2013’s energy reform. Otherwise, Mexicans would end up just watching without being able to take action.
Crises are always sources of opportunity. However, in order to seize opportunity it is needed a clear willingness to change criteria, obsessions and dogmas. Today’s government deficit in Mexico is not fiscal, but rather political.
* 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