A Bicentennial Relationship Still Facing Growing Pains


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By EARL ANTHONY WAYNE, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico

Monday, Dec. 12, marks 200 years of U.S.-Mexico relations.

This occasion provides a special opportunity to value how intertwined the two nations are, and how, more than ever, each country’s well-being depends on finding the best possible ways to resolve differences with the other, and to build on opportunities for mutual benefit.

The Mexico-U.S. relationship is quintessentially “inter-mestic” or “inter-mestica” — which means key issues are international and domestic at the same time. The ties between the two countries — families, culture, trade, history, values, migration and crime, to name a few — touch the daily lives of more Mexicans and more Americans than do ties with any other country in the world.

This interconnection means that major domestic developments in one country, such as an economic or political “crisis,” can easily affect the neighboring country. In fact, frequent initiatives, policies and government actions (or lack of effective action) will have serious effects on the other side of the border.

We all recall the U.S. decision to annex Texas and go to war with Mexico as an intentional and history-turning U.S. intervention in Mexico, but if we look at the ebb and flow of U.S.-Mexico relations, including in recent years, both Mexico and the United States often impinge on their neighbor’s sovereignty and continue to do so, even if often the impact is not intentional.

This dynamic reflects the intertwined reality of these two neighbors. Unless addressed effectively, serious tensions or complications can arise. Achieving maximum positive impact for both countries’ domestic policies often requires coordination and cooperation with the other.

To put this into today’s context, the Joe Biden administration has highlighted the importance of forging a foreign policy for the middle class and has won congressional approval for massive new investments in the U.S. economy, but Mexico is a key player for those efforts to succeed. And for Mexico, its economic rebound after the pandemic has been driven by commerce with the United States.

Increasingly, more leaders on both sides of the border have come to understand the importance of trying to reconcile conflicting policies and to achieve the benefits of coordinating, even if it means that one or both national governments need to be willing to adjust or compromise their initial approach.

Though such forward-looking cooperation between the two governments has been the exception for most of the last two centuries, in recent decades they have sought to forge agreements that establish mutually acceptable expected norms, practices, institutions and agreed-on mechanisms designed to foster better management of differences and disputes.

The outlook began to change to a more consistent appreciation of the long-term benefit of cooperation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the shared view of the potential benefits of increased North American trade and the negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

NAFTA gave a growing set of “stakeholders” on both sides of the border an enduring interest in promoting longer-term economic and commercial cooperation, and the successful commercial results fueled a predilection to try to cooperate and solve differences on other bilateral issues.

The relationship today still faces serious challenges and mistrust.

However, persistent efforts by select political leaders, officials, businesspersons and civil society leaders — “the stakeholders for success” in U.S.-Mexico relations — have forged more mutual understanding and supported closer working relations on a broad policy agenda.

We are today at the point where well over a million dollars of U.S.- Mexico trade per minute flows between the two countries daily and supports many millions of jobs in both countries under North America’s updated trade accord, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

These trade and co-production networks have been a vital part of restarting both economies following the pandemic slowdown. Analysts argue convincingly that today North America as a unit is very well placed to play an even stronger role in the emerging “regionalized” version of globalization, where nearshoring and reshoring are more important than before for building prosperity and well-being.

North America has big opportunities to attract more partner-shoring and reshoring, to build more resilient production networks, to compete more effectively with China and others, and, importantly, to invest in better managing serious challenges that have long plagued bilateral cooperation, including migration and cross-border crime. Achieving positive outcomes demands sustained constructive collaboration, however.

The great potential for North America does not diminish the serious problems that exist, nor will they be easy to resolve. In the economic sphere, the two governments currently face important differences: over energy management and treatment of investors, over the use and regulation of agricultural biotechnology, over how vigorously to pursue “greener” energy and other environmental policies. They also disagree over vehicle rules under the USMCA, and over aspects of how best to promote domestic growth with preferential policies, for example.

Both the United States and Mexico face enormous migration waves that urgently
need better solutions. Cross-border crime fuels massive numbers of overdose deaths in the United States and far too much crime, violence and corruption in Mexico. Both governments are still struggling to improve border management and to build a more efficient and effective 21st century border to handle the growing cross-border traffic, licit and illicit.

The key for the future is clear: the ability of leaders to keep in mind the importance of investing in the Mexico-U.S. relationship for the benefits it can deliver over time. This will require compromises, patience and using well the mechanisms that promote problem-solving.

Country leaders also need to continue fostering the involvement of stakeholders, as well as a better-informed public, who support finding common ways forward. As part of this effort, the two governments need to invest in building mutual understanding by expanding educational exchanges, which are currently undersized and underfunded.

The promise that emerges from 200 years of México-U.S. bilateral relations is clearest when leaders of good will and broader vision see beyond the immediate and near-term political and economic interests to forge a future of increasing prosperity, security and well-being for both countries.

EARL ANTHONY WAYNE is a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and career ambassador (ret.) from the U.S. Diplomatic Service, where he served as U.S. ambassador to both Mexico and Argentina, as well as assistant secretary of State for economic and business affairs. He is also the co-chair of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute Advisory Board and a Diplomat in Residence at American University’s School of International Service.

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