By Diego Marroquín Bitar *
“Hedgehogs have to trust each other enough to sleep stomach to stomach in the cold.”
– Amb. Earl Anthony Wayne, former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico
Relationships are complicated. They call for empathy and a careful calibration of expectations. On that subject, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer explained the hedgehog’s dilemma to talk about human interactions and the risk of intimacy: a situation where two prickly creatures, trapped in a cold winter’s day, face a choice. They can either huddle together to generate warmth but endure each other’s pointy quills, or move apart to avoid the discomforts of proximity, but suffer the piercing cold. Schopenhauer’s imperfect solution was to find positions close enough for mutual benefit, but distant enough to avoid each other’s spikes. Both hedgehogs could achieve this favorable distance through politeness and open communication. Interestingly, Schopenhauer’s metaphor can also apply to relations between nations, where one-on-one dialogue is replaced by mutual respect and joint institution building.
More accurate than yesteryear’s parable of an insensitive bear (the U.S.) and a frightened porcupine (Mexico) proposed by the U.S. Amb. Jeffrey Davidow in the early 2000s, the hedgehog’s dilemma also describes the increased equality in the current dynamic of the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship. The relationship is still asymmetrical, but both countries face the same challenges, namely post-pandemic economic recovery, a surge in violence, the rise of autocracies abroad, building resilient supply chains, combating security threats from criminal organizations, and fighting terrorism. Joint problems need collaborative solutions.
A lot has changed in the last two decades as Mexico transitioned into a vibrant democracy with a burgeoning economy. With a population of almost 130 million, strong macroeconomic fundamentals, and an open market with over 12 free trade agreements; Mexico has become the U.S. largest trading partner and a key ally in the co-production of goods. At the same time, more than 25 years of economic integration since the implementation of NAFTA (now USMCA) have brought the two countries closer to a point where both feel each other’s spikes —and their own.
Contrary to the U.S. public narrative and Amb. Davidow’s metaphor, the interconnectedness between the U.S. and Mexico makes it impossible for the former to continue to stay silent on how the current Mexican administration handles things like migration, how it complies with USMCA’s new labor and environmental laws, and the dangers of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s embrace of the military. In the same way, it is impossible for Mexico to keep quiet about how the U.S. immigration system and law enforcement severely impact the lives of Mexican and Central American migrants, or how drug consumption patterns in the U.S. leave a trail of blood and despair south of the Rio Grande. Progress starts by acknowledging reality, including our shared responsibilities beyond the border.
The recent visits to Mexico City by Vice President Kamala Harris, the US Homeland Security Secretary and the US Trade Representative show that the Biden administration realizes that there is an opportunity to renew the bilateral dialogue and move past the status quo of quills —of distance, cold feelings, and distrust. Almost eight months into the Biden administration, both countries are well past the “getting to know each other” phase and understand precisely where their spikes lie. With the return of decency to the White House and the end of Mexico’s recent imperial presidency, a different approach is welcome and urgently needed.
Taking a lesson from the hedgehogs, the U.S. and Mexico need to address the issues that divide them, as well as their shared problems in a hostile international environment. Bilateral dialogue, careful relationship building, and a common set of rules are essential for this endeavor. Only through such dialogue within a rules-based relationship will Mexico and the U.S. calibrate their relationship and find the optimal distance where both can thrive. The return of the High-Level Economic Dialogue (HLED) is a good entry point and an example that needs to be replicated in other areas including migration, anti corruption efforts, and resilient supply chains (the so called “ally-shoring”). To succeed, we need to broaden the scope of the relationship. Bilateral conversations between state governors and legislators on arms trafficking, illicit money flows, the use of synthetic drugs, and risk management in the health sector are critical too.
Success will require careful thought and swift action. À la Schopenhauer, efforts to form deep connections without a plan will irritate both sides, and artificial separations like walls will further exacerbate our common challenges.
It is time to act with purpose and a plan. The more days that go by without an ambitious institutional plan for the future supported by the U.S.-Mexico business community and civil society carries a too high opportunity cost. The enemies of North American democracy will surely exploit delay. To avoid the piercing cold of winter, the U.S. and Mexico need purposeful action on a broader scope, and they need it now. Vice President Harris’ new action agenda of US-Mexico bilateral cooperation is a promising start, but stronger institutions will be essential to a renewed North American project.
* Diego Marroquín Bitar is a consultant and also a fellow at the U.S.-Mexico Foundation. The U.S.-Mexico Foundation is a binational non-profit organization dedicated to fostering bilateral cooperation and improving the understanding between the United States and Mexico by activating key people in the relationship that once were dormant. Twitter: @usmexicofound