By Diego Marroquín Bitar & Ryan C. Berg *
It takes two to tango. Any time two partners dance, coordination and commitment are essential to advance a message or transmit a feeling. In the absence of both, all is destined to fail since it becomes impossible to form a connection. While the stage is set to reestablish a better rhythm of US-Mexico relations, both countries must commit to finding synergies, or else they’ll keep stepping on each other’s toes–to the benefit of neither. Regrettably, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) trip to Washington this week does not appear to have fundamentally altered the lack of rhythm in the bilateral relationship.
AMLO’s trip to the United States this week occurred at a delicate time in this dance. On the bright side, bilateral trade has bounced back to pre-Covid levels, with exports from both sides of the border experiencing a 19 percent year-on-year increase in the first quarter of 2022. Similarly, the new US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement (USMCA) is off to a fast start, addressing more disputes in two years than its predecessor (NAFTA) did in three decades.
These positive trends notwithstanding, a lot seems to be going awry in the US-Mexico relationship. Apprehensions at the US southern border have soared to record numbers, and Mexican criminal organizations control vast swaths of territory and conduct drug trafficking operations that have contributed to thousands of deaths each year. Furthermore, 1970s-style statism is ascendent in Mexico, with AMLO eager to erode many of the gains the country derived from a landmark 2013 energy-sector reform permitting greater private sector investment and participation in domestic energy markets. Experts also point to dark clouds stemming from Mexico’s practices in agri-food biotechnology and general attitude toward private investment and the rule of law.
Similarly, the US’s interpretation of automotive rules of origin, as well as the Biden administration’s plans to subsidize electric vehicles risk driving companies to abandon USMCA, and may lead to further disruptions in regional supply chains. There are now consultation processes pending under different chapters of USMCA. Without a willing partner to jointly address these issues, the current state of affairs threatens US security, economic interests, and even the geopolitical balance in the Western Hemisphere.
Tuesday’s AMLO-Biden rendezvous at the White House marked their first meeting since the North American Leaders Summit in 2021, owing to AMLO’s diplomatic snub at the US-hosted Summit of the Americas last month in Los Angeles. Unlike his predecessor’s invectives, both President Biden and US Ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, have been reticent to allow disagreements to spill out into the public. However, silence and discreet diplomatic efforts have belied mounting frustrations with the current state of bilateral affairs. Worse, this strategy has a large opportunity cost: it risks AMLO misinterpreting silence and diplomacy as a green light to push further against U.S. business interests and USMCA’s aspirations for regional competitiveness relative to other trading blocs. In other words, the current approach of sweeping significant differences under the rug does not seem to be delivering U.S. objectives on critical issues such as decoupling supply chains from China and nearshoring or ally-shoring them to the Americas, reducing inflation, combating the scourge of drug trafficking, and finding solutions to key shortages in labor (i.e. labor mobility), semiconductors, and medical devices, to name just a few.
Rather, a more strategic approach to these simmering tensions would be better. Keeping a lid on the volume of disagreements should no longer be the determining factor in U.S. policy toward Mexico. The Biden administration needs to think deeply about the impact of private complaints in the halls of the Palacio Nacional and other, more public mechanisms, such as the USMCA consultation process, investor-dispute settlement mechanisms, and binational institutions. A more discerning approach to AMLO, which settles on the right combination of incentives, will be critical to mitigating irritants and major tensions moving forward.
As AMLO solidifies his position at home and throughout Latin America’s growing “leftist” bloc, Tuesday’s White House visit should have represented a pivot point in the Biden administration’s current strategy vis-à-vis the Mexican president. The longer the US waits, the more emboldened AMLO may feel in both his domestic and regional position, and the more future meetings between leaders may devolve into performative sessions meant to increase AMLO’s image. The last year and a half has demonstrated that the emphasis on maintaining a personal friendship with AMLO has not been sufficient to generate substantial change in his policies or approach to the U.S.
The goal of any dance is harmony, yet to achieve it, both parties need to commit. The joint statement that came out of the visit hardly broke the mold, as it appears that the Biden administration believes that the bilateral relationship can carry on without addressing its major irritants. Apart from a pledge from Mexico to invest US $1.5 billion to improve border infrastructure and the creation of a joint task force to disrupt the flow of fentanyl, it is highly unlikely that Tuesday’s meetings altered the status quo.
Shared values and trust are necessary to place the relationship on a firmer footing. However, Biden has not been forthright with Mexico regarding AMLO’s daily attacks on autonomous institutions, academia, regulators, and the judicial branch during his daily mañaneras.
If Biden really wants to engage with Mexico in a constructive way and show something beyond a rebound in trade, the U.S. president should carefully reevaluate his strategy toward Mexico. To build a more competitive and resilient North American economy, the region needs to break away from the traditional non-confrontational, business-as-usual approach. It is high time for President Biden to put on his dancing shoes and openly engage his Mexican counterpart.
Setting the US-Mexico relationship on autopilot as long as Mexico helps stem migration flows from Central America carries a hefty price tag. The longer both wait, the harder it will be for Mexico and the United States to find a tempo.
* Diego Marroquín Bitar is a public policy expert from Georgetown University and a fellow at the US-Mexico Foundation. Ryan C. Berg is a senior fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).