U.S.-Mexico Partnership Will Get More Prickly



Shannon K. O'Neil | Bloomberg

A new era in U.S.-Mexico relations has already gotten off to a rocky start. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, better known as AMLO, is one of the few heads of state that has yet to congratulate his soon-to-be U.S. counterpart, Joseph Biden. But whether AMLO likes it or not, change is coming, and Mexico needs to prepare for a broader, deeper and likely tenser relationship between the two nations.

Mexicans harbor a deep distaste for President Donald Trump: Polls show fewer than two in ten approve of the U.S. leader. Nevertheless, their president has been exceptionally warm, even fawning, over his northern counterpart. At Trump’s behest, he redirected a good portion of Mexico’s National Guard from protecting citizens to stopping migrants. AMLO was quick to fly to Washington (his only trip out of the country in his two years as president) to backstop Trump’s candidacy, touting Trump’s respectful treatment of Mexico, despite much evidence that it was anything but.

 And, in the end, Trump has asked quite little of his fellow leader. As long as AMLO stopped migrants from coming to the U.S. southern border (which he has by and large done), the White House hasn’t bothered to check in on what else is happening in Mexico. This neglect has been a gift for a president with an ambitious domestic agenda focused on concentrating political power even as he has floundered on the economy, security and management of the pandemic. And it mirrors AMLO’s long-standing predilections to disengage on foreign policy and disconnect crucial parts of the economy such as food and energy.

 A Biden administration will return to a deeper, more institutional framework of ties. U.S.-Mexico relations will be shaped less by decisions made solely in a West Wing office and more by the scientists, specialists and bureaucrats spread among dozens of departments and agencies. From commerce to water, labor practices to security, human rights to environmental rules, the U.S. government will again draw on its full breadth and depth to guide bilateral policymaking.  

With more issues on the agenda, the U.S. will be more involved in the day to day of what is happening in Mexico. For the last four years, the U.S. has barely said a word about corruption, democracy or human rights. There has been limited engagement on security. The White House hasn’t even defended the private sector, remaining eerily quiet as Mexico restricted or cancelled the contracts of U.S.-based renewable energy companies in seeming violation of the new USMCA (more than three dozen Republican and Democratic members of congress instead stepped into the breach). 

Environmental and labor issues will lead the new bilateral dialogue. As the U.S. renews its international commitments and cleans up its own energy matrix, it will lean on neighbors and allies to do the same. Democrats will put the labor oversight included in the new USMCA trade agreement into practice. And they will reinvigorate support for the basic underpinnings of democracy: Free and fair elections, governmental checks and balances, a vibrant press and a strong civil society.

This newfound interest and activism will test the relationship. A Biden administration is unlikely to give Mexican industries a pass on the increasingly dirty Mexican energy matrix. Labor challenges will unsettle the status quo. And this keener U.S. focus on Mexico’s institutional processes will come as the nation heads toward contentious midterm elections in June 2021. 

Migration may become the first bilateral flashpoint. Apprehensions at the southern U.S. border have been ticking up since April. Hurricane Eta’s physical devastation, displacing more than 300,000 people so far across Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, combined with the ongoing economic costs of Covid-19 for Mexico and Central America and the advertising by coyote human traffickers eager to drum up business after a lull suggests the wave of sojourners will quickly rise. 

While a Biden administration will be less likely to strong arm Mexico, it will lean on the nation to contain the flows: The broken U.S. immigration system has few tools for managing a surge in a humane way. At the same time, Democrats will actually care about what happens to the tens of thousands of migrants, many women and children, who remain on the Mexican side of the border. 

There are opportunities for broader bilateral cooperation. Together the two nations can lessen the human and economic costs of the Covid-19 pandemic. United, they can take greater advantage of the current shifting of global supply chains, bringing more manufacturing to North America. But to grasp these possibilities, AMLO will have to change direction. He’ll have to get past his isolationist and nationalist tendencies and accept greater outside involvement in Mexico’s doings. He will need to recognize the scientific basis of the health threat and guide his nation accordingly. He will have to empower rather than constrict the private sector, starting with energy. And he will need to be open to greater political plurality and debate. 

Given AMLO’s temperament and past record, more U.S. attention will be uncomfortable and frequently tense. But it should also be welcomed. After all, such engagement is befitting and necessary for two nations that are the closest of trading partners, share the same water, breathe the same air, and whose health, public security and economic futures are so deeply intertwined.

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Shannon O’Neil is a senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

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