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Post-Trump, Mexico Won't Rush To Reconcile With Washington

Mexican President López Obrador has made it clear that he prefers keeping the United States at arm's length.

Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador during a conference in October 2020
Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador during a conference in October 2020
Luis Rubio


MEXICO CITY — When divorce is not an option, the parties must get on as best they can. That's the logic that Mexico and the United States have long followed over their shared border. And it isn't, as a quick look around the globe reminds us, the worst of arrangements.

Still, everything suggests the Mexican government, under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), wants a different relationship. What's not clear is whether it realizes that stirring the pot could lead to some nasty surprises.

It is no secret that the border presents complexities. And it's not just because of the multiple, interrelated issues involved, but also due to the different ways the dividing line is perceived.

The poet Octavio Paz wrote that this border was "political and historical, not geographical," to which he added the enormous cultural contrasts between the two nations. In fact, Mexico's main trait in the 20th century was its systematic attempt to keep its distance from the colossus to the north. As late as the 1960s, the Mexican economy's most successful period, some politicians here harbored fears still of a possible invasion.

It is no secret that the border presents complexities.

In the 1980s, during a seemingly unending economic crisis made far worse by political decisions (like expropriating banks), Mexico decided to change tack. There was a double logic to its decision, which stemmed first off from a rejection, finally, of the notion that a country could prosper with an economy isolated from the world.

Already in the 1960s the Mexican economy was beginning to show disconcerting tendencies that were covered up, but never overcome, with new sources of oil. That allowed the country to postpone for at least another decade the inevitable revision of its stabilizing development model.

The other reason that pushed the government closer to the United States was its search for an anchor. The Mexican economy had shrunk and become impoverished in the 1980s due to poor decisions taken in the 1970s and to the enormous distrust government decisions had generated.

Biden participating in a virtual bilateral meeting with Lopez Obrador in March 2021 — Photo: Adam Schultz/White House/ZUMA Wire/ZUMAPRESS.com

Relations with the United States were meant to generate confidence, and attract savings and investments for the country's development. The two economies had moved closer by then, cross-border assembly plants (maquiladoras) were prospering.

In the meantime, though, security issues had become both more dynamic and contentious. Migration was growing as well. Within a decade, in other words, sources of possible conflict between the two states had multiplied.

Initiatives on both sides finally yielded a free-trade pact, which was an initial accord that preceded further trade negotiations but proved crucial in the decades that followed. In 1988, the two governments adopted two principles that have allowed them to solve problems and ease relations, opening unprecedented opportunities for interaction.

The first was a shared vision on the neighborhood's future, including growing economic integration, rejection of jingoism or use of history to sow animosities, and expanding student and scholarly exchanges. The second principle was to resolve matters impeding the relationship without letting them infect other affairs. This was the principle of compartmentalization, which allowed them, until Donald Trump's arrival, to administer this complex relationship without too many headaches.

In 1988, the two governments adopted two principles to solve problems and ease relations.

The two principles have weakened but not disappeared in the last four years. First, presidents Trump and AMLO did not share the earlier vision of the future of this bilateral relationship. In fact, both preferred to return to the distance that preceded the 1980s. Second, by linking migration to Mexican exports, Trump effectively put a lid on compartmentalization.

President Joe Biden may recover the two principles, but everything suggests his intention is not shared on the Mexican side. And that's because, in his eagerness to recreate his idyllic world of the 1970s, President López Obrador wants to restore a relationship of "respect and sovereignty." That, he imagines, was the stuff of bilateral relations in that period.

The logic of his actions since Biden's election shows this interest in a more distanced, less exclusive relationship. He has courted China and Russia to that effect. I am convinced the Mexican government doesn't want a divorce, but a redefinition of relations. The question is, at what cost?

The current relationship is not only extraordinarily complex, requiring very particular management, but also deep-rooted and indispensable to both nations. Their economic interdependence is enormous and so great indeed that while Trump and AMLO may have preferred to blitz NAFTA, centripetal forces obliged them to ratify a renegotiated treaty.

The big question is, how to manage a relationship without a shared vision of its dynamics and future, and without the key to resolving differences, compartmentalization of issues? Dreaming of distance is easy, but in real life it has disappeared.

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