The Unacceptable Mexico Blind Spot

By Dan Restrepo, Fellow, Center for American Progress

As the U.S. presidential primary season ramps up, candidate after candidate will come forward to lay out their national security vision.

All will rightly highlight the importance of concluding the “Endless Wars;” returning the United States to the global effort to overcome the climate crisis; and the need to effectively arrest the global rise of authoritarianism and populism.

The economic and security challenges posed by China will (and should) also feature prominently as each candidate outlines a path forward from January 20, 2021 on the global stage.

If past is prologue, however, most will fail to mention, let alone emphasize, the country and relationship that most profoundly affects day-to-day life in the United States—Mexico.  

And any such omission should be seen for what it is—a worrisome blind spot.

Whether she or he recognizes it today, building a 21st century relationship with Mexico must be a top tier national security priority for the next U.S. President. And not simply, or even primarily, because of the damage wrought by President Donald Trump’s nativism aimed at Mexico and Mexicans.

Effectively advancing U.S. national interests—across a wide spectrum of issues—will be impossible without a modern relationship. In today’s world, American prosperity and security begins not only with what happens within our borders but also on the state of relations with our closest neighbors—our most essential economic and security partners.

Current trade tensions with China underscore, for all to see, Mexico’s importance to the U.S. economy. The first quarter of 2019 was the first time Mexico ranked No. 1 among U.S. trade partners. Millions of U.S. jobs and the global competitivity of key U.S. industries depend on North American economic integration. Keeping the American homeland safe also depends on close, often-times discreet, collaboration with our Southern (and Northern) partners.

In addition to trade, there are approximately 1 million legal border crossings each day between the United States and Mexico. There are more than 36 million people in the United States that trace their heritage to Mexico. More Americans live abroad in Mexico than anywhere else on the planet.

The United States and Mexico share vital water resources and cross-border infrastructure is enhancing energy integration—in both the traditional and renewable sectors. Mexico is a vital partner in managing migration in the Americas from whom the next president should not seek to extort cooperation as President Trump is attempting.

And there are the challenges of other illicit flows, in both directions–of drugs, money, weapons, and other black-market goods–primarily through the 47 land ports of entry along the border that undermine security and prosperity in both countries.

In addition to addressing these vital dynamics, quickly constructing a positive, modern partnership with Mexico will also serve as an important signaling mechanism to global actors, both friends and foes. Any bid to assert global leadership in a vastly changed world will be far more compelling and convincing from a United States that has reconciled with its closest neighbors.

But building this modern U.S.-Mexico relationship will not be easy.

It will have to overcome the legacy of rampant nativism visited upon Mexico in recent years. For the first time in decades, positive, popular sentiment toward the United States has plummeted in Mexico. Mexicans do not simply hold negative views of President Trump, in large numbers they also harbor negative views of the United States writ large. Overtures from the next president of the United States to turn the page in the relationship will likely be viewed with deep skepticism.

But the challenges to the new relationship will not simply be a function of Trump’s legacy. Mexico’s inward turn will almost undoubtedly complicate things considerably.

Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has yet to leave Mexico since taking office on December 1, 2018 and shows little interest in the world beyond Mexico’s borders.

López Obrador and the political movement he brought to power view themselves in express juxtaposition to a generation and a half of Mexican political and economic leaders who sought to breakthrough Mexico’s traditional international isolation. That “NAFTA generation” pried open Mexico’s economy, as well as its political system, but it is now far from power and will not be awaiting a new U.S. president with open arms. At least not from positions of official power.

This inward turn will likely be further accentuated by Mexican midterm politics as López Obrador seeks to consolidate his political project in June 2021.

Regardless of these challenges, Mexico must be a top tier priority for the next president of the United States. A priority that should not wait for Inauguration Day or even Election Day.

A coherent articulation of the U.S. place in the world in 2019 simply cannot include a Mexico blindspot.

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