When reading basic definitions of nationalism around the world, at first hand it is hard to blame anybody for being a nationalist. Indeed, nationalism is often described as the pride and love for one’s country, as a desire to be politically independent, and as the spirit and aspirations common to an entire people. However, things get a bit more complicated when we think of nationalism as a policy or doctrine focused on asserting a nation’s interests in isolation, or even opposed, to those of other nations and/or to the common interest of all nations. As the world has become more integrated, interdependent and complex, nations still should and do in fact pursue their own interests. However, two things have also happened. First, nations –and specially their leaders – should think more carefully about where their interests really lie. Second, it is harder to isolate itself from the rest of the world and its trends. The consequences can just be staggering if you get things wrong.
Just as nationalism has been associated with different political ideologies worldwide over the last two centuries, Mexican leaders have used nationalism as part of their own governing and development strategy for the country. In today’s Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has promoted the idea of inaugurating a new era in the country’s history -he calls it the Fourth Transformation- clearly intending to instill a new sense of nationalism. The idea itself is perfectly fine but the important question is whether it is the right kind of nationalism. President AMLO correctly takes pride in Mexico’s cultural heritage and has made it an important part of his own political narrative. In his inauguration speech, he stated that the country’s precedent cultures enable today’s Mexicans “to confront epidemics, earthquakes, floods, invasions, civil wars, and economic crisis among other calamities”. During his term which began in 2018, President AMLO has also referred to Mexicans as a hard-working, honest, entrepreneurial, and combative people. I doubt any Mexican would object to this kind of nationalism. Moreover, if used properly, Mexico’s cultural heritage can be a very potent public diplomacy tool to make the country attractive and to help pursue national interests.
However, as it is often described, President AMLO is also a heir to the “revolutionary nationalism” that defined long periods of Mexico’s one-party rule under the PRI in the 20th century. After all, President AMLO’s own political education stems from one of such periods: the 1970s. During those years, he became a member of the PRI and it was then that his political career was born. The President has repeatedly highlighted the early 1980s as the moment when Mexico entered the “neoliberal nightmare”. Those were the years when Mexico began to open to the world both economically and politically. In his quest to end this “nightmare”, President AMLO has, in my view, adopted a kind of nationalism whose main tenets ran contrary to Mexico’s 21st century interests. Let me delve into some features:
•State-owned companies, spearheads for development. As I have written on this site before, one of President AMLO’s main governing goals has been to “rescue” two state-owned companies: oil firm PEMEX and power utility CFE. During his first half of his six-year term, the President has devoted significant resources to this endeavor both in terms of money and political capital. The debate on the future of both companies has veered into an issue of national pride and almost of “good” versus “evil” Mexicans. The President has publicly argued that the country needs a strong PEMEX and a strong CFE in order to keep electricity, gasoline and natural gas prices low. The problem with this approach is that the notion that prices can remain low without regard to what happens worldwide really obviates a serious analysis of what is actually the best way to achieve this. It also obscures the fiscal cost involved, a discussion that Mexico will face forcefully in the next few years.
•Self-sufficiency. Much in the same vein, self-sufficiency is a favorite term of AMLO’s Fourth Transformation narrative –on anything from oil, technology, and science, to food, sports and vaccines. As a classical liberal economist, I believe that, in the context of a relatively open trading system, countries should focus in producing and exporting that on which they have a comparative advantage, while building a secure base of inputs and products of what they need from abroad at the best possible price. This is not the strategy that Mexico is currently following. Self-sufficiency is being pursed at the cost of endangering the country’s trade relations and misusing scarce public resources.
•Foreign and domestic investment. Luis Echeverría, who governed Mexico between 1970 and 1976, is often described as a “nationalist” President. In his inaugural speech, Echeverría stated that “foreign investment must not displace Mexican capital but complement it, partnering when useful and, in any case, Mexican capital is the one that should lead the engagement between both with sagacity, dignity and patriotism”. Mr. Echeverria’s relation with the business sector and the country’s economic performance during his term are hardly an example to follow. President AMLO said in his inaugural speech back in 2018 that both foreign and domestic investors would be “safe” in Mexico and that conditions would allow for “attractive returns”. However, actual reality has been contradictory at best. While some parts of his government do work hard to generate appropriate conditions to attract foreign investment to Mexico, there is also a harsh Presidential rhetoric against foreign investors. Since the beginning of the 21st century -part of AMLO’s “neoliberal nightmare” era – Mexico received US $607 billion in foreign direct investment. These investments became one of the most important drivers of economic growth for Mexico, with foreign companies normally offering better employment conditions than the national average. Nowadays, the main task for a national government should be to focus on creating clear, transparent, fair and efficient investment rules. More importantly, it should abide by them.
•A defensive foreign policy. Every single country naturally aspires to have an independent foreign policy. Mexico sought to achieve this –at least in part– by establishing a set of foreign policy constitutional principles in 1988. These include self-determination, legal equality of States and non-intervention in internal matters, among others. These are not much different from general international law principles and, while they have served in occasions to achieve important policy objectives and successes, they have also been used in a defensive way to avoid the sort of international scrutiny that liberal democracies should not only accept, but also promote in a globalized world. Regrettably, it increasingly appears that the sort of nationalism that President AMLO endorses reflects the latter. This is a kind of Mexican nationalism that shies away from international engagement and openness, to hide its problems and shortcomings. This is something that will surely hurt Mexico in the long run.