President Biden and his foreign policy team have their work cut out for them in terms of restoring US credibility and leadership in the world – shoring up alliances, constraining thuggish authoritarian regimes who thrived under Donald Trump’s permissive watch, and managing the ever thorny relationship with China. In this environment, there is a danger that the important US-Mexico relationship closer to home will suffer from neglect.
This is especially true given that the new administration is determined to take a more institutionalized, less personalized, approach to our southern neighbor than Donald Trump did. Trump and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), fellow populists disdainful of established norms that stood in the way of their respective political projects, had a strong affinity and mutual understanding. Beyond updating and renewing a free trade deal that neither leader felt deeply invested in but embraced for convenience, both leaders seemed to have an implicit agreement that so long as AMLO did as Trump demanded on immigration, the two leaders would stay out of each other’s business. For AMLO, that meant he could chip away, unobstructed, at the foundations of a quarter-century’s worth of progress in making the US and the Mexico more interdependent, closer neighbors and partners.
It is time for real alarm in Washington about trends in Mexico, and a strategy to reverse them. Across a broad range of substantive areas, Mexico is backsliding away from the shared US-Mexico commitment of closer ties and economic integration. AMLO pines for the statist, self-sufficient nationalism of the 1960s and 1970s, which featured an all-powerful presidency at its core. His government has arbitrarily interfered with contracts awarded US investors in Mexico, rescinded previous accords on binational security cooperation to combat organized crime, championed state energy monopolies by pushing for a reversal of his predecessor’s reforms that introduced private competition and investment (including by foreign players) into the market, and is even threatening legislation to infringe upon the freedoms of US media platforms in Mexico. Many of these moves would violate terms of the USMCA trade agreement; all of them violate the spirit of the past few decades’ move towards closer relations.
The Biden administration can count on highly qualified officials in the White House (such as Roberta Jacobson and Juan González in the NSC) and across a number of agencies to handle aspects of the day-to-day, subject-by-subject relationship with Mexico in a more institutionalized manner than the Trump years. Yet the relationship calls for a more coordinated, holistic approach to reverse the backsliding and get us back on track towards fulfilling the North American potential. As the ongoing need to coordinate immigration surges from Central America and the blackouts across Texas and Northern Mexico this past week make clear, the two countries are too intertwined to neglect their shared interests and lurch back towards the fantasy of estranged self-reliance.
President Biden knows first-hand the complexity of a relationship whose range of issues transcend traditional foreign policy. The relationship with Mexico, call it regional North American policy, encompasses both foreign and domestic realms – sure, the State Department is involved, but so is Homeland Security, Justice, the US Trade Representative, Agriculture, Energy, you name it. That is why President Barack Obama made his vice president Joe Biden the US lead on the relationship in 2013 under what was then termed the “High Level Economic Dialogue” that engaged all of Obama’s cabinet. And that is why President Biden should now do the same and charge Kamala Harris with reinvigorating the US-Mexico relationship and once again setting it on the right path.
It won’t be an easy mission. AMLO and his Morena political movement are especially sensitive to what they perceive as US intrusions on Mexican sovereignty. But appeasement of Mexican assaults on US interests and abandonment of the rule of law, or mere efforts to police these infractions and challenge them episodically at lower levels of government are not viable alternatives.
Biden should invite AMLO to a state visit to launch a new version of an ongoing binational North American strategic dialogue spearheaded by Vice President Harris. Its expressed purpose should be the enhancement of North American competitiveness, precisely at a time when companies are second-guessing their past reliance on Chinese supply chains. Harris’s formidable political gifts will be needed to walk the fine line between presenting this re-engagement in positive terms, while making clear to Mexico City that the US government will no longer look the other way to actions that threaten American interests, or Mexican democracy for that matter.
As Senator, Harris was among the group of progressive Democrats who voted against the USMCA, but in pursuing a Biden policy of constructive engagement with Mexico, Harris will also be putting Mexico on notice that the US government will be eager to see Mexico meet its labor and environmental commitments. On energy, our bipartisan interest in avoiding further Mexican backsliding is clear, as AMLO’s recent moves hurt efforts to combat climate change as much, if not more, than they hurt foreign investors. Indeed, to underscore the bipartisan nature of our approach to Mexico in the post-Trump era, Biden should consider naming a Republican such as Jeb Bush or Jeff Flake as ambassador to Mexico City.
Mexico’s drift away from the United States and back into its ignominious past is contributing to a deepening economic crisis in Mexico that hurts both countries. The new strategic engagement should be framed as an opportunity to spur further economic growth in both nations and maximize the potential of our shared vision of the past few decades.
Interestingly, AMLO himself hasn’t explicitly rejected that vision of closer ties and interdependence, even if his actions and unrelated rhetoric suggest otherwise. His government did renegotiate a new free trade deal, and even when he has improperly acted against private investments he has rationalized doing so as one-off moves and disingenuously claimed that larger policy shifts do not violate treaty obligations.
So it’s time for clarity. The United States government needs to let AMLO knows that it is back on the job, eager and willing to rebuild cross-border understanding and restore the promise of closer ties.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America .Twitter: @AndresDCmtz