US-Mexico relations: One step forward, three steps back

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Progress is non-linear. Improvements in public policy and foreign affairs sometimes suffer setbacks and require constant monitoring and evaluation. 

The U.S.-Mexico relationship is no stranger to this dynamic and, although it is “on a much better track than it was a year ago” according to former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Earl Anthony Wayne, recent developments in Mexico could force the two countries back to the aloofness, distrust and lack of results that defined both the 80s and Trump’s presidency.           

In 2021, the United States and Mexico reestablished a number of binational and regional institutional dialogues. Considering this is the United States’ most important bilateral relationship in the Americas, restarting strategies on security and economics are welcome upgrades.  

These actions, in concert with the resumption of more normal business on the US-Mexico border and the reintroduction of the North American Leaders’ Summit (NALS), are steps forward in furthering economic integration and providing an opportunity to take care of issues that are best addressed regionally, including workforce mobility, sustainable development and climate change.

Bilateral dialogue is the way forward to secure progress and is crucial to resolving critical supply chain disruptions, the unremitting effects of COVID-19 and transnational crime. However, a set of current policies in Mexico, if left unchecked, can set both countries back to the status quo. 

First, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s proposed electricity reform hurts Mexican consumers and U.S. firms and threatens the viability of long-term investments in renewable energy. López Obrador’s determination to favor state-owned PEMEX — the world’s most indebted national oil company — over private sector investment would undermine the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), risk jobs in both countries and increase greenhouse gas emissions in North America. Discouraging foreign direct investment will create a less competitive energy market in Mexico and raise consumer costs, while also exacerbating an erosion in Mexico’s rule of law.

Second, efforts to strengthen mutual and North American institutions have yet to transfer to Mexico’s domestic agenda. The López-Obrador administration has accused autonomous organizations such as Mexico’s competitiveness, electoral and energy regulatory authorities of wasting public funds, threatening democracy and acting against the will of the people. In fact, members of the ruling Morena party have physically threatened public servants defending Mexico’s checks and balances. Further, a recent presidential decree (currently suspended by the Supreme Court) to shield infrastructure projects like Mexico’s new airport, Mayan Train, and the Dos Bocas refinery from public scrutiny is designed to undermine transparency and accountability. Additionally, budget cuts, dismissals and public accusations of a lack of patriotism against professors and public universities that challenge López Obrador’s policy agenda are troubling signs for the future of academic freedom in Mexico. 

Third, Mexico’s foreign policy may constrain the Biden administration’s ability to work with the nation in areas where collaboration is essential. Although these actions are meant to appease a particular sector of López Obrador’s domestic constituency, openly supporting a repressive regime in Cuba, railing against alleged U.S. control of the Organization of American States and not questioning Daniel Ortega’s undemocratic reelection in Nicaragua generate domestic pressure on Biden that will impede progress on important issues such as migration, border enforcement and supply chain management. Rather than cultivating a positive relationship with its most important trading partner and neighbor, López Obrador’s “non-non-interventionist” foreign policy hinders bipartisan U.S. support for U.S.-Mexico cooperation.

Both countries have a unique opportunity to collaborate on a wider set of issues in 2022. Paraphrasing pop singer Olivia Rodrigo, the risk is that the one step forward represented by progress and cooperation through bilateral dialogue may be offset by three steps back on energy, institutions and foreign affairs. Relentless pursuit of reform in Mexico that ignores the larger intermestic agenda and undermines Mexico’s autonomous institutions limits North America’s position as a competitive, democratic and environmentally-conscious bloc in comparison to Russia and China.  

A passive “wait and see” approach to Mexico’s domestic policy objectives will hurt President Biden’s and investors’ long-term interests in the region. For a successful bilateral aggiornamento, both Mexico and the United States must be candid about their bones of contention and develop joint proposals to address them. Looking the other way comes at an extremely high cost.

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. 

Diego Marroquín Bitar is an analyst and lead researcher for the Brookings Institute’s USMCA agenda. He specializes in US-Mexico relations and trade and labor mobility and has been published in academic journals and in U.S., European and Latin American media outlets. He is a former consultant for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and The Economist Group and a fellow at the U.S.-Mexico Foundation. 

Tags Andrés Manuel López Obrador Economy of North America foreign relations International relations Joe Biden Mexico–United States relations Trade blocs United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement

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