The U.S. and Mexico must revamp institutions supporting their joint efforts

Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Mexico last week should be welcomed as an effort to enhance cooperation in different areas. High-level visits generate all sorts of opinions, but one thing to highlight about this one is the decision to rely on bilateral institutions to address the many challenges both countries face together. 

Over time, as ties have become more important but also more complex, we have built institutions to maintain a functional and mutually beneficial relationship. Systematic dialogue, rules to manage our interactions and specific programs or organizations — all broadly described as bilateral institutions — provide stability to the relationship. They help us work out issues ranging from the management of our shared river basins along the border, to dealing with transnational organized crime, eradicating the screwworm, to establishing efficient regional supply chains. They also facilitate follow-up which is often key to assure that joint initiatives are successfully implemented. 

Last year, a group of former ambassadors from Mexico and the United States gathered in Blanco, Texas to think about the future of the relationship. The event — sponsored by the U.S.-Mexico Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute — was an opportune exercise after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had just been renegotiated into the United States, Mexico, Canada Agreement (USMCA). The group’s main conclusion was that we needed to update and strengthen bilateral institutions, especially as we seem to be headed to a new period in the relationship. Harris’ visit will help to jump-start a couple of these institutions, although several others deserve attention. 

Working with the private sector on competitiveness 

Mexico is now the United States’ most important trading partner, with around 15 percent of all U.S. trade, ahead of both China and Canada. Yet, USCMA is not only important because of how much we exchange in goods and services, but also because it offers us a platform to produce together, supply North American markets and export to other regions in the world. Naturally, we must continue to make sure that USMCA is successfully implemented, remain committed to our obligations and keep our trade and investment relations healthy. Nevertheless, there is also a need to establish broader economic dialogue to promote competitiveness, connectivity and innovation. Last week, the U.S. and Mexican governments agreed to hold a high-level economic dialogue meeting next September and revive this forum. The high-level economic dialogue was created in 2013 to advance strategic economic interests that go beyond trade relations. The mechanism was headed by then-Vice President Biden and provides a great opportunity to implement the concept of ally shoring — which is the reconfiguration of supply chains among trusted and like-minded countries.

Security and Law Enforcement

The notion of transnational organized crime (TOC) can only be addressed by accepting a shared responsibility and working together. Fortunately, it has gained ground in the past 20 years or so. Security and law enforcement cooperation between Mexico and the U.S. has shown progress but objectively mixed results. It is never easy, but both countries simply cannot go without it. The Merida Initiative began in 2008 at the request of the Mexican government as a means to “strengthen cooperation and increase assistance by the U.S.” in dealing with transnational organized crime. The initiative became the backbone of our joint security and law enforcement efforts until 2019, when President Lopez Obrador’s administration began. In August 2019, a new high-level security working group was created to review the initiative as part of a broader cooperation effort.  A thorough assessment of how the initiative worked and its results is certainly welcomed, but its basic principles and objectives, in my view, still remain valid. Last week’s vice-presidential visit also yielded an agreement to “hold a cabinet-level security dialogue to discuss a shared vision for security.” Any institutional framework will be far from perfect and will require permanent maintenance and updating. However, it is hard to see how our security cooperation can be successful if we try to reinvent things every so often, rather than building from past efforts and the lessons they brought us. 

Other opportunities 

In 1981, Presidents Ronald Regan and Lopez Portillo established the Binational Commission as a forum to provide high-level attention to the relationship. The commission served as an action-creating-event, where cabinets normally received guidance and instructions. The commission became a victim of the bilateral relationship’s own success, in that government agencies gradually established strong individual ties with their counterparts, and it stopped meeting several years ago. If the U.S. and Mexico seek to create a new shared vision and comprehensive bilateral agenda for the future, reestablishing some form of regular cabinet-level meeting seems to be convenient. 

In a similar vein, the Mexico-U.S. Interparliamentary Group began meeting in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy met with the delegations at the Oval Office. This clearly reflected an increasingly important relation between both countries. Over the years, the group has met on many occasions, sometimes including legislators from both the Senate and the House and more recently only with House Representatives and their Mexican counterparts. There are several reasons why interparliamentary contacts have become more important. “All politics is local”, as suggested by former Speaker Tip O’Neill and, in this regard, the bilateral relationship is sometimes referred as “intermestic,” meaning that its issues become the subject of the respective domestic policy agendas. At the same time, the role of Mexico’s Congress in developing policy has become increasingly important. Finally, Mexican legislators now have a process to run for reelection. This will provide more stability on the Mexican side and facilitate continuity and follow-up, something that had always concerned U.S. legislators. 

Having bilateral institutions does not mean we can obviate differences, nor that we will automatically be able to address all challenges constructively. It does mean, however, that more often than not, we decide to face them in an organized and institutional way to the benefit of both nations. 

Geronimo Gutierrez Fernandez served as Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. (2017-18) and is currently a senior advisor at Covington and Burling.

Tags Economy of North America International relations International trade Joe Biden Mérida Initiative North American Free Trade Agreement Politics of Mexico Transnational organized crime United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement

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