When divorce is out of the question, the two parties have to find a way to compromise. That’s been the logic that Mexico and the United States have followed regarding their shared border. A mere glance around the world proves there are much worse alternatives. Nevertheless, everything now suggests that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration would not mind giving “no compromise” a try, without fathoming the Pandora’s box lying in wait.
The fact that the border between the Mexico and the U.S. is extremely complex is nothing new. Not only due to the multiple issues on the table but also because of inextricable perceptions. Mexican poet Octavio Paz once wrote that “the border between Mexico and the United States is political and historical, not geographical”. Paz later added as an additional factor the gaping cultural contrasts between the two countries. In fact, the main feature of 20th-century Mexico was the systematic attempt to maintain the colossus of the north at arm’s length. Even during Mexico’s most successful economic era -the 1960s- some politicians harbored fears of a possible U.S. invasion.
In the 1980s, Mexico decided to pivot to a different kind of relationship with the U.S.. This pivoting occurred in the context of a seemingly endless Mexican economic crisis that had been magnified and deepened by political decisions like the nationalization of the banks in 1982. The logic of this change in Mexico’s attitude vis-à-vis the U.S. was twofold.
First, it was an acknowledgment of the new realities in global production that had done away with the notion that it was possible to prosper with an economy isolated from the world. The Mexican economy was already showing worrying trends since the 1960s that were obscured, but not solved, by the discovery of vast oil resources in the Gulf of Mexico. In reality, this turn of events allowed Mexico to postpone the inevitable review of the 1960s stabilizing development strategy more than a decade.
The second reason that led Mexico to draw closer to the U.S. during the 1980s was the search for anchors of stability. In the 1980s, Mexico underwent an economic contraction and was a poorer country due to bad decisions taken in the 1970s. These decisions had sown distrust. Mexican administrations sought in the U.S. a source of economic certainty that would attracting savings and investment in the 1980s. By that time, the twoe economies growing closer, the export assembly plants (“maquiladoras”) were prospering, the bilateral security agenda was increasingly contentious and Mexican migration to the U.S. was growing. That is, the sources of potential conflict between the U.S. and Mexico had multiplied in a mere decade.
Negotiations between Mexico and the U.S. eventually led to NAFTA trade dealt to be enacted in 1994. But it was the initial agreement between both countries, and which preceded the trade negotiations, that was key for the bilateral relationship to prosper in the following decades. In 1988, the Mexican and the U.S. governments adopted two principles that were conducive to solve the existing problems and decompress the bilateral relationship. This opened up previously inconceivable opportunities for interaction between both countries.
The first principle was a shared vision regarding the future of the relationship among the two neighbors. This included greater economic integration, an agreement not to let historical grievances to be used to distance the U.S. and Mexico, and the opening of greater student exchange between the two countries.
The second principle was agreeing to solve the bilateral issues that afflicted the U.S.-Mexico relationship without them contaminating each other. The countries adopted the principle of compartmentalization, which allowed managing this complex relationship without too much fuss, until Donald Trump’s arrival to the White House in 2017.
Those two principles have been weakened, if not demolished, over the last four years. First, Trump and López Obrador did not share the existing vision regarding the future of the bilateral relationship and, in fact, both would have preferred to return to the pre-1980s distancing. Second, by linking migration to a tariff threat against Mexican exports, Trump decimated the concept of compartmentalization of issues in the U.S.-Mexico relationship. It is possible that Biden would want to return to those two principles, but everything on the Mexican side suggests otherwise.
In his eagerness to recreate his idyllic world of the 1970s, president López Obrador seeks to reproduce the relationship of “respect and sovereignty” that, in his mind, was at the core of the relationship that Mexico had with the U.S. back then. The logic with which López Obrador has conducted himself since Biden won the election last November is indicative of his goal to diminish, move away from, and diversify the relationship, courting China and Russia to that end. It seems clear to me that the López Obrador administration is not pursuing a divorce, but a redefinition of Mexico’s relationship with the U.S. The question is at what cost.
The current U.S.-Mexico relationship is not only extraordinarily complex and demands painstaking management. It is also extremely deep and indispensable for both countries. Mutual economic dependency is enormous. Even when Trump and López Obrador would have clearly preferred to do away with NAFTA, centripetal forces demanded the treaty to be renegotiated and ratified.
The big question in U.S.-Mexico relations will be how to manage the relationship lacking a shared vision of its future and dynamics, and without the critical tool of compartmentalization of issues to avoid frequent bilateral clashes. It’s easy to dream of putting some distance, but in real life it is nonexistent.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of México Evalúa-CIDAC and former chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI). A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @lrubio