Mexico’s domestic-minded foreign policy could alienate the US

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When elected, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was regularly characterized as a leader with limited interest in foreign policy. He had limited foreign travel experience and expressed little interest in engaging on the international stage. Indeed, in his first three years in office, he has only left the country once — to visit Washington D.C. to celebrate the entry into force of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

During the first two years of López Obrador’s term, which coincided with the Trump administration, his foreign policy consisted mainly of collaborating with the United States on the renegotiation of NAFTA and cooperating to limit Central American migration to the United States in return for non-intervention in Mexico’s domestic affairs. The policy seemed to have worked — the Trump administration took limited notice of policies such as López Obrador’s efforts to reverse the 2013 energy reform despite its impact on U.S. investors. It refrained from traditional U.S. critiques about human rights. Both countries, in a sense, followed Mexico’s traditional “Estrada Doctrine” of non-intervention in other’s domestic affairs.

One of the few deviations from the López Obrador administration’s focus on domestic affairs was Mexico’s unopposed election to a non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council for a two-year term that began in January. Mexico is a frequent representative of the consensus and dialogue collaborative, Group of Latin America and the Caribbean, and it may have been Mexico’s “turn” as much as it was an López Obrador’s priority to fill the seat. That said, the Security Council term offers López Obrador an opportunity to demonstrate his administration’s commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes worldwide. Mexico’s offer to host talks between Venezuela’s government and the opposition is a second such (and much welcomed) opportunity.

Yet, it would be a mistake to suggest that López Obrador does not have a foreign policy or is not interested in the world beyond Mexico’s national borders. The evidence suggests that he largely views foreign policy through a domestic lens, using public statements to appeal to his base’s leftist elements and influence the Mexican media narrative. This explains several decisions and statements, especially following the inauguration of Joe Biden. These moves range from the January offer of asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to his statement that the U.S. embargo was the cause of July’s unprecedented demonstrations in Cuba, to his public announcement of a decision to reestablish diplomatic relations with North Korea.

The characterization of López Obrador’s foreign policy as non-interventionist is also subject to considerable interpretation. For example, while Mexico did not condemn the Jan. 6 riots in the U.S., it strongly and promptly condemned the Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar and called for the restoration of democracy and the respect for human rights. More recently, when Cubans demonstrated in the streets for the first time in 60 years, rather than calling for democracy and respect for the rights of the people, López Obrador echoed the Cuban government’s language blaming the U.S. “blockade” for the demonstrators’ complaints. He then dispatched “humanitarian” aid to Cuba via Mexican navy ships.  One could argue that López Obrador’s comments were intervening in the domestic policies of two countries.

These policies and his recent call to replace the Organization of American States (OAS) with a “non-lackey” body that no longer responds primarily to the interests of the United States recall the language of the Non-Aligned Movement (a collective of states that aimed to stay neutral during the Cold War) and of Mexican governments during the Cold War era.

Far more important than whether López Obrador hopes to reconstitute the 1970’s movement is how these statements and proposals are interpreted in the United States and elsewhere by governments, potential investors and civil society groups in and out of Mexico.

The words and actions identified above are likely aimed at a domestic constituency that appreciates López Obrador’s willingness to challenge the United States and are, perhaps, not always anticipated by Mexico’s foreign ministry. Yet, when viewed from outside Mexico, they may be sending messages that are not in Mexico’s long-term interest. While the Biden administration will separate the moves regarding Cuba or North Korea, or the statement on the OAS, from more important bilateral issues, public criticism of a longstanding and largely domestically-driven U.S. policy constraints Biden’s ability to work with López Obrador due to the likely reaction from those who staunchly support the current Cuba policy.  

Suggestions that Mexico plans to normalize relations with a country that poses a security threat to the United States and brutally represses its own people may cause some to question whether Mexico should be viewed as an ally or partner (though Mexico is unlikely to alter its actual relationship with North Korea). López Obrador’s words and actions on Cuba can build animosity toward Mexico in corners that can impede progress on other goals with the U.S. Importantly, Cuba and North Korea have very little to offer Mexico.

At this moment, when firms are considering ways to shorten their supply chains and create resilience, Mexico should be top of mind. Creating a narrative that Mexico supports repressive regimes in Havana and Pyongyang and rails against alleged U.S. control of international organizations does not cast Mexico in a positive light. As a result, rather than capturing additional investment and cultivating a positive relationship with its most important trading partner and neighbor, López Obrador’s “non-non-interventionist” foreign policy risks undermining new investment in Mexico and the Biden administration’s ability to partner with Mexico to address myriad issues where shared solutions are essential.

Andrew I. Rudman is the director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. A former Foreign Service officer and director of the Office of NAFTA and Inter-American Affairs at the Commerce Department, he has worked on Mexico and U.S.-Mexican relations throughout his public and private sector careers. Twitter: @AndrewIRudman

Tags Andrés Manuel López Obrador Economy of North America Joe Biden Julian Assange Mexico North American Free Trade Agreement Presidency of Joe Biden Trade blocs United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement

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