While the eyes of the American public are often turned toward the Middle East or Asia on foreign policy matters, America’s interaction with Mexico is perhaps the most ingrained foreign policy relationship. The Foreign Policy Association (FPA) emphasizes this partnership in its 2012 Great Decisions Television Series, aired by PBS. In Episode 3 – “Beyond the Border: The U.S. and Mexico,” Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution and Andrew Selee of the Woodrow Wilson Center Mexico Institute remind the audience why Mexico literally can’t be ignored. U.S. government dollars are spent on border policy, families are split between the countries, and 80% of Mexican exports are to the U.S. (though 40% of the content of such goods is American). As an FPA member, the message I take is that American leaders can progress the relationship further by engaging directly in Mexico’s political system, and focusing on more than border-issue politics.
In a cameo appearance for the episode, Julia Preston, the National Immigration Correspondent of The New York Times, reminds us that in 2000, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was voted out of the presidency after holding power for 71 years. Preston believes the degree of this change was not felt by U.S. leaders, who are normally preoccupied with immigration or illegal drugs when thinking of Mexico. In a sequel cameo, Arturo Valenzuela, the Director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University, states that Mexico “is going through one of the great transitions of our time” from one-party state to pluralist democracy. This transition requires Mexican political leaders to adapt to a system in which power must be shared and parties not in government must act as opposition loyal to the system. The transition also requires time and effort from Mexican leaders, who simultaneously must worry about the war on drug traffickers.
Mexico’s Ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan, fervently links a healthy U.S. – Mexico relationship to the well-being of Americans, but also states that “non-traditional, trans-national security challenges” like drug cartels must be tackled jointly by both nations. While Sarukhan may be saying this because his military cannot control Mexico’s interior, Episode 3 sows seeds in the viewer’s mind that America is obliged to do more to foster positive change South of the Border.
Host Ralph Begleiter’s questions go down this line of thought – he inquires to Felbab-Brown, Selee, and the audience whether Americans are aware of the political transition occurring in Mexico (presumably he’s not referring to Mexican-Americans, who are 10% of the population). Begleiter also asks how the U.S. could build a wall between itself and a partner nation. Felbab-Brown points out that nineteenth-century U.S. actions, such as the U.S. – Mexican war, are still fresh in Mexican minds, along with the modern-day flow of drugs and money to the South that has turned many Northern Mexican towns into ghostly war zones. The Great Decisions panel and Ambassador Sarukhan do praise the Obama Administration’s effort to expand security cooperation as the joint responsibility of both states. This marks American efforts to go beyond the Mérida Initiative, a significant foreign aid program offered by the U.S. in 2008 to enhance Mexico’s armed enforcement capabilities.
Every Great Decisions viewer is entitled to his or her own reaction; mine is to wonder how U.S. policymakers at this moment can build up the bond with our Southern neighbor. Both countries have presidential elections this year, and there are 6 possible outcomes for the presidential duo who will carry the relationship forward. Also, the U.S. election is not until November. According to Duncan Wood of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, this uncertainty “should alert U.S. policymakers to the need to engage the leading contenders on security cooperation earlier rather than later with a view to understanding their positions and influencing their approaches.” This should include a thorough investigation of the now infamous Operation Fast and Furious, which allowed firearms to pass directly into the hands of the cartels. However, deeper economic cooperation would positively affect security cooperation. The U.S. could incentivize Mexico to diversify the tax base away from PEMEX, the state oil company, and thereby open up new government revenue sources.
With regard to PEMEX itself, the company needs foreign investment to acquire new drilling technology and improve domestic refining capacity. It would be beneficial to both countries if the U.S. oil companies could form an effective partnership with PEMEX. Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI, currently frontrunner in the presidential race, may be poised to implement such a reform. The PRI is most likely to control Congress, is best poised to engage PEMEX’s unionized workers, and holds more state governorships than any other party. However, in the past, the PRI has cooperated with the U.S. behind closed doors while shouting anti-American rhetoric in public. No doubt this would hurt the partnership, particularly in a U.S. election year. Hopefully American candidates and the State Department will follow the lead of Great Decisions, and engage the Mexican candidates proactively upfront.
See a preview of the episode here:
Great Decisions TV webpage: http://www.fpa.org/great_decisions/?act=gd_tv
 Wood, Duncan. “Mexico’s 2012 Presidential Election and U.S.-Mexico Relations.” Center for Strategic and International Studies. May 2011.