Foreign Policy Blogs

Great Decisions 2012 – The U.S. and Mexico

The evolving U.S. Mexico border. Credit: Reuters

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.”[1] 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:

[1] Wood, Duncan. “Mexico’s 2012 Presidential Election and U.S.-Mexico Relations.” Center for Strategic and International Studies. May 2011.

  • Reg

    Relationship with Mexico should be more than cordial, it should be friendly. But U.S. national interests should not be sacrificed in the pursuit of this friendly relationship. Fences makes good neighbors. This is an age old American saying and never is it more true than during current times. A good immigration policy toward Mexico is very much needed but control of the border is just as paramount. A variable that has been added that is underexplored is the presence of Iranian based players in South America that can exploit the sensitivities about a “fence” (or lack of it) between two friendly partner nations. A smart U.S. foreign policy requires the wisdom of Solomon in considering the human, national security, oil, trade and diplomacy factors in this complicated equation. So far politics at the federal level have resulted in a dismal failure to enact Immigration reforms in Washington, DC. Is it time for the border states to assert themselves?

  • tomas caparroso franco

    the issue is money , is in dugs ,arms ,inmigrants if we dont recognize that these 3 bussiness are every minute , our , day the 2 countries are loosing credibilitiy power , and money .
    money is in the line if we recognize that the real travel is the legalisation of drugs in the 2 countries .
    arms if we recognize thay legalization of arms in mexico , that any person can have a arm to defense him self , and authorize the sell of arms in mexico wil attemper violence in the streets , when robbers wil believe that any person has a gun to defense him selve they will stop .

    the business of drugs and arms will be legal in the 2 countries if we legalize them .

    if we continue , these double moral , and not understanding the real problem is a big bussines in the 2 countries will be beneficiary of the legalization of drugs and arms

  • bklyngt

    Reg points are good. But I would go further and say NAFTA needs to revised. If Mexico has a vibrant domestic economy, then the immigration issue corrects itself to a large degree. The US can play a bigger role in this.
    It all comes down to economics.

  • Luz Maria Alvarez-Wilson

    As a Mexican, living in Canada for more than 25 years, I find it very interesting to see how opposite different US policy is towards its two neighbors. Until very recently Canadians didn’t even need a passport to cross to the US, and if you were crossing by car, more often than not, you didn’t even need to show your photo id. I suspect that the old American saying that ‘fences make good neighbours’ does not apply well there. Mexicans will continue to be a cheap labor base for the US just as the Mexican market will continue to be very important for US products and services but a solid US policy needs to recognize that the weel-being of Mexicans, translates also into their weel-being.

  • Reg

    I am not sure that legalization of drugs will reduce the border violence. Competition among the players (cartels) may even increase once the market is wide open. In the meantime drugs will become more easily accessible to the most vulnerable members of society- the children. In any case, I feel that there is no political will in the U.S. at this time to emulate the Europeans’ more tolerant attitude towards drugs.

    A good Mexican economy will solve a lot of problems! The tragedy of violence against illegal border crossers may disappear as workers decide that jobs in Mexico are just as good. What are needed? The country is rich in natural resources- oil, metals, minerals, etc. It could have a vibrant agriculture developed with an easily available labor force. But investors, developers and technical assistants will shy away from Mexico as long as the problem with the drug cartels remain unsolved. Corruption in the Mexican bureaucracy is a stumbling block. The educational system could use a lot of improvement and solving the corruption in government may allow more of the oil revenues to be shifted in this direction. Mexicans do not have to settle for being a “cheap labor base”. Mexicans are smart and industrious but their government have to improve education, teach language skills and provide basic technical training.

    I crossed the U.S.-Canada border several times last summer. I feel that I can definitely cross more easily into Mexico than into Canada. The return crossing scrutiny (on the U.S. side) is equally strict in both borders. The fence and the more strict border control, I believe, is partly because of 9/11 and the Jihadists training in several countries south of Mexico.

  • Clint

    90% of all workers make less than $90.00 a week and that involves a 10 hour a day, 6 days a week work week. Foreign policy with respect to illegals crossing the border, drug smuggling and a lack of human rights, could be changed with the Mexican government instituting a minimum wage, say double the $90.00 bucks.
    But, that want work, what am I saying, our imports would cost more to MFR.


Hunt Kushner
Hunt Kushner

Hunt Kushner is a John C. Whitehead Fellow with the Foreign Policy Association. He currently works in Corporate Development with Ports America Group, the United States' leading port terminal company. Prior to this, he worked for 6 years at Deutsche Bank in the Corporate Finance and Mergers and Acquisitions for Latin America Group. In his 6 years at Deutsche Bank, Hunt worked on mergers and equity offerings for companies across Latin America in sectors such as energy, real estate, transportation, and banking. Hunt graduated from Yale University in 2006 with a BA in Political Science.