Next Mexican president ushers in new era of relations with America

Next Mexican president ushers in new era of relations with America
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Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, commonly known as AMLO, won a decisive victory in the Mexican election this month. His commanding 53 percent of the vote in the presidential race gave him a substantial margin over his nearest rival. His newly created political party, Morena, together with its coalition partners, captured a majority of seats in the congress.

But who exactly did the Mexican people just elect? With his combination of left-wing populist sentiment and strident nationalism, AMLO has been variously described as both Mexico’s Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Trump threatens to veto defense bill over tech liability shield Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump MORE and Mexico’s answer to Donald Trump. For months before his election, many keen foreign policy observers and prominent business leaders reacted with alarm to the prospect of a Lopez Obrador presidency. Under AMLO’s leadership, they warned, already strained U.S.-Mexico relations will sink to a new low.

Yet, we do not fully share that pessimistic view. One of us served as special envoy for the Americas under President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBookExpo organizers 'retiring' event Harris selects Tina Flournoy as chief of staff: report One-termers: What Trump can learn from Carter and Bush's re-election losses MORE. The other served as ambassador to Mexico under President George H.W. Bush and ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush. We believe that if Mexico’s next president keeps the pragmatic promises he made as a candidate, this could actually be a much needed moment of renewal for the relationship between our countries.

The first challenge for Lopez Obrador will come as he transitions from campaigning to governing. In some respects, AMLO has already gotten a head start. He broke with tradition by announcing his Cabinet picks months before the presidential election took place. It was an unorthodox move designed to reassure his critics that although the list was left of center, it included voices from across the political spectrum.

We have personally spent time with several members of Lopez Obrador’s presumptive team, and we found them to be serious, thoughtful and practical, more interested in serving their country than an ideology. Perhaps most important, AMLO’s longtime relationship with advisor Alfonso “Poncho” Romo, a longtime business leader slated to be AMLO’s chief of staff, suggests that Mexico’s new president seeks to be a reformer rather than a radical, and an agent not of chaos but of change.

The question is, now that he has been elected with such a commanding majority, will AMLO formally appoint the Cabinet he informally announced? We hope he sticks to his original list. His picks ought to signal a broader attitude toward building a coalition. While AMLO ran and won as an outsider, he will have to extend a hand to at least some elements of the Mexican establishment if he hopes to get things done.

Here there is some cause for optimism. As mayor of Mexico City in the early 2000s, Lopez Obrador embraced public-private partnerships and was unafraid to reach out to political opponents. It was a successful strategy that allowed him to leave office with an 85 percent approval rating. If he repeats it as president he will be well on his way to proving the doubters wrong, and early market reaction in the short time since his election indicates he is already proving willing to reach out constructively.

Yet, making the pivot from candidate to chief executive is only a first step. After successfully transitioning to governance, AMLO must decide how he will lead the country. Here, he should pursue sound and proven economic policies that allow him to keep his promises to voters while reassuring the private sector responsible for most of Mexico’s job creation and growth.

A first major test of AMLO’s economic policymaking will come as he approaches the energy sector. The outgoing administration pushed through major constitutional reforms designed to encourage more private energy investment and less government control. Will Lopez Obrador do everything in his now considerable power to reverse the changes made under his predecessor? Or will he, however grudgingly, accept them? Choosing the latter course would send a strong signal to the business community that Mexico’s new president is someone they can work with.

No less important, clear respect for the Mexican constitution would demonstrate AMLO’s commitment to the rule of law. All incoming chief executives face the temptation to overreach. That is especially true for those who, like Lopez Obrador, have a resounding election win. But AMLO must avoid the hubris that all too often accompanies taking office. He has a mandate to change policy to reduce income inequality, crackdown on corruption, and more. But only by respecting institutions can he deliver on his populist campaign promises without risking economic collapse.

On NAFTA, Lopez Obrador must be careful in finding a way to deliver for his voters without plunging Mexico into crisis. His team has promised not to renegotiate any agreement made before he takes office in December. He should also make it clear that if no agreement is reached by then, he will continue to negotiate in good faith, rather than throw the entire agreement out. By sending this strong and reassuring signal early on, Lopez Obrador can appeal to private sector pragmatism, which we have already seen in a YouTube video in which several Mexican business leaders pledge to cooperate with the new president and his team.

Of course, AMLO will also have the tough task of engaging with the United States. It is difficult to imagine any Mexican president enjoying a constructive relationship with the Trump administration. Like the American president, AMLO is hardly known for rhetorical restraint. Yet, it perhaps precisely because of their similarities that they have a real chance to renew constructive engagement. Lopez Obrador’s measured tone toward Trump on the campaign suggests he is a realist at heart.

He should be willing to meet in good faith with his American counterpart in a search for common ground. If he does, the Trump administration must reciprocate by behaving more constructively than it has in the past. As a proud nationalist, surely Trump understands that insulting rhetoric aimed at Mexicans, and at Latinos generally, poisons the well for any potential dealmaking. As a believer in his “America First” foreign policy doctrine, surely he understands that our security requires cooperation with the Mexican military, intelligence services, and law enforcement. Trump should tone down the inflammatory remarks, extend a genuine hand of friendship, and do his part to reset relations. That may seem far fetched given recent history, but if Trump can meet with Kim Jong Un, then surely he can meet with Lopez Obrador.

The steps we have laid out here are not predictions. We do not pretend to know how this presidency will play out. But we know Lopez Obrador and key members of his team personally, and we know the region well. If Mexico’s incoming president makes the right choices, especially early on, he has a chance to provide prosperity and security for his people while ushering in a new era in Mexico’s relationship with the United States.

Mack McLarty served as White House chief of staff, counselor to the president, and special envoy for the Americas for President Bill Clinton. John Negroponte served 37 years with the U.S. Department of State, including as ambassador to Mexico under President George H.W. Bush and as ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush.