Biden’s leadership will enhance relations with Mexico and Canada
A Biden administration can be expected to put U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada relations back into a strategic framework for solving problems and strengthening long-term cooperation. This would include pursuing a more consistent approach to Mexico and Canada, less driven by individual issues and tradeoffs and more concerned with achieving progress across a range of key issues, stretching from trade to public security to economic competitiveness to the environment.
At the highest level, there will be a change of tone and attitude, treating both neighboring countries with respect and seeking to forge agreement on a set of shared objectives bilaterally, as well as across the continent. We can expect more regular consultations among leaders and at ministerial levels. U.S. proposals for new or strengthened bilateral mechanisms to better achieve and monitor progress on cooperation and problem-solving are likely. Similarly, expect a return to concern about continent-wide problems that are key to all three nations’ future, as was previously seen in summits of the leaders from the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
While Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, is being cautious about congratulating a winner in the U.S. presidential race, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among the first to congratulate Biden and since has called to discuss working together on COVID-19 and the environment. Biden said in an interview that he plans to hold an early meeting with AMLO to develop a joint economic and security strategy, and as part of undoing the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
Tough bilateral problems will remain with both U.S. neighbors, but the rhetoric and atmosphere will change for the better. We can expect more U.S. restraint in threatening tariffs and revived attention to working together on regional and international issues.
Economic issues remain central
During President Obama’s second term, Vice President Biden oversaw the U.S.-Mexico High-Level Economic Dialogue — a forum the Trump administration ended. We can expect a revival of some broader U.S.-Mexico ministerial forum for managing economic relations, with the goal of enhancing economic results beyond just trade. This likely will be the case with Canada too, with the probability of more frequent ministerial consultations and leader-level conversations. We also should look for a revival of the North American Leaders Summit, which last met in 2016. The summits served to identify priority issues for collaboration across North America.
Regarding trade, a Biden administration can be expected to continue to focus on implementing the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) but with more emphasis on developing the economic potential in the agreement. There will be continued pressure on respecting labor rights issues in Mexico, where there is strong support from Democratic members of Congress. There also will be a pause in dispute processes during the U.S. transition and probably a reassessment by the new team of which trade problems to pursue.
The Biden team’s overall effort to “build back better” likely will translate into substantial new investments and a policy focused on empowering the U.S. economy and restoring U.S. competitiveness in the world. This opens opportunities for cooperation with neighbors, given the high level of economic integration that already exists in production and commercial networks. Steps to “build back better” can be taken in ways that also build North America-wide connectivity and productivity to better compete against economic powerhouses such as China.
A broader economic dialogue also could incentivize Mexico’s government to give greater policy attention to making Mexico more productive in the modern global economy. Canada is well-focused on these future-oriented issues. In this context, we could see new enthusiasm for North American coordination on technology-related policies such as building 5G networks, investing in workforces, enhancing cyber-readiness, and building hi-tech into cross-border infrastructure and interconnecting transportation networks.
Energy and environment
Energy and the environment are a major area for enhanced bilateral and trilateral cooperation. The Biden administration will put more focus on the environment and clean energy as an important path for generating economic growth and addressing climate change. We could see proposals to restore the North American Energy Dialogue with new attention to “green” energy. This could generate pressure for Mexico to adjust its priorities, including the government’s current focus on oil at the expense of renewables.
A Biden administration will emphasize a more humanitarian approach to asylum seekers and migrants. However, it will not want to be confronted by a new migrant crisis at the Southwest border and likely will expect Mexico to responsibly manage any northern migrant flows in a humanitarian fashion.
Biden has announced plans for a $4 billion, multi-year program to invest in addressing the root causes that push migrants to leave the Northern Triangle countries of Central America. This is consistent with the Mexican president’s original request to invest in Central America, which the U.S. ignored.
Public security, drug trafficking, democratic practices
U.S.-Mexico cooperation on public security and cross-border crime has continued, but with serious ups and downs, most recently buffeted by the U.S. arrest of Mexico’s former defense secretary for aiding a drug cartel. The framework and processes for security cooperation need serious bilateral review, but the Mexican government has resisted that.
Public security cooperation with Mexico was coordinated from the White House during the Obama administration. I suspect Biden’s team will support a review and seek agreement on new coordinating mechanisms to jump-start a more effective effort against criminal groups, which cause tens of thousands of deaths yearly on both sides of the border.
Also, Biden’s administration will pay more attention than the Trump administration to corruption, democracy and human rights issues in Mexico, and will be more willing to speak up, especially if criticism around these issues in Mexico continues to rise.
Under Joe Biden’s leadership, the prospects are good for a more strategic and coordinated approach to Canada and Mexico, who touch more daily U.S. lives than any other countries. Establishing more regular dialogues across the continent will open significant opportunities for economic and public security gains in North America.
Former ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne is a diplomat-in-residence at American University’s School of International Service and advisory board co-chair for the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. He was a U.S. diplomat for 40 years. Follow him on Twitter @EAnthonyWayne.
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