from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Global Mexico: From Principles to Interests

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto looks toward U.S. President Barack Obama during their meeting at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2015.

May 5, 2016

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto looks toward U.S. President Barack Obama during their meeting at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2015.
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On this Cinco de Mayo, raise a toast to “Global Mexico.” After decades of defining its international role with reference to the United States, Mexico is looking further afield. The government of President Enrique Peña Nieto is groping for a new strategic vision appropriate for a nation whose commercial, political, and cultural links extend far beyond its northern neighbor.

But assuming a new global role will require psychological as well as policy adjustments. Mexico must update its longstanding attachment to nonintervention and sovereignty to an era of interdependence. It must become less coy about defining and asserting its national interests. And it must educate its inward-looking population about their stakes in an open, rules-bound international order. These were the main conclusions I drew from a fascinating conference earlier this week at the Mexican Foreign Ministry on “Global Mexico: Interests and Principles of Foreign Policy,” where I had the privilege of delivering a keynote address.

Like other rising players, Mexico is struggling to define a coherent strategic vision to guide its multidimensional foreign engagement. This challenge is arguably harder for Mexico than for other emerging or so-called “middle powers,” for reasons of geography and national identity. To begin with, Mexican foreign policy elites recognize the overwhelming importance of the United States for Mexico’s foreign (as well as domestic) policy—so ably chronicled by my colleague Shannon O’Neill in her book Two Nations Indivisible. Mexicans (like many Americans) are used to conceiving of Mexico’s global role in bilateral terms, as subordinate to U.S.-Mexican relations. One purpose of the Mexico City conference was to begin moving away from a purely “hyphenated” conception of Mexico’s global role.

An even greater obstacle to “Global Mexico,” arguably, is the persistent discomfort that many Mexicans—including the diplomatic elite—have in speaking the language of “national interests.” This tendency is deeply engrained in the nation’s political culture. Since the founding of the republic in the early nineteenth century, Mexico has defined itself—often in distinction to the United States—as a country that pursues principles rather than interests. Embedded in the 1917 constitution and its successors, these guidelines emphasize self-determination, nonintervention, the inviolability of sovereignty, the peaceful resolution of disputes, respect for human rights, and support for development. Missing from Mexican foreign policy tradition is any coherent effort to define (much less prioritize) more concrete national interests—or to embed these in a larger national security strategy. To these jaded U.S. ears, much of the discussion in Mexico City—about whether and how to reinterpret and reconcile enduring ideals alongside baser political, security, and material motives—seemed innocent, even naïve.

Why have Mexican diplomats launched this inquiry now? Simply put, they understand rising global interdependence has erased traditional boundaries between foreign and domestic, whether the issue is financial instability, organized crime, migration, climate change, or many others. Prior to the 1980s, Mexico was among the world’s most closed economies, with combined imports and exports perhaps just 20 percent of GDP. Today, thanks to sweeping reforms, that figure approaches 70 percent. Mexico now possesses the fifteenth largest economy in the world, is a member of the G20, and plays an active role in multilateral negotiations on matters ranging from trade to global warming. (One of its senior diplomats, Patricia Espinosa, was just named by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to lead the post-Paris negotiations of the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.)

As an increasingly active player on the global stage, Mexico needs a grown-up foreign policy. That was the main message of Secretary of Foreign Affairs Claudia Ruiz Massieu, who opened the conference. To set clear goals and achieve tangible results, she insisted, Mexico must learn to speak the language not simply of principles but also of interests. In that spirit, based on two days of conversations, here are four priorities for Mexico:

Relax attachment to nonintervention. Given their historical experience with intervention, including at U.S. hands, Mexicans naturally venerate nonintervention. Yet as several speakers noted, this orthodoxy can frustrate Mexican foreign policy aspirations, particularly when it is interpreted so broadly as to render illegitimate any criticism of tyrannical regimes abroad that violate the very human rights standards that Mexico purports to honor. A case in point was the government’s refusal until recently to meet with Venezuelan opposition party members. It also places Mexico on the sidelines, including in situations of peace enforcement, at a time in which it should be assuming its share of responsibility for promoting and sustaining international security. Fortunately, the Peña Nieto government has begun to relax this historical stance: In September 2014 the president endorsed the first Mexican participation in UN-mandated peace operations. To be responsible, in the words of former Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs Rosario Green, “Mexico needs to go beyond our comfort zone without leaving behind our principles.”

Adopt a more nuanced defense of national sovereignty. Like the United States itself, Mexico defends its constitutional independence, national autonomy, and territorial integrity with vigor. And yet such neuralgia can be self-defeating—namely, when it protects the nation against imaginary threats while preventing it from tangible benefits. A case in point was Mexico’s longstanding opposition—fortunately since reversed—to foreign involvement in its domestic energy sector, which had long delayed economic gains. At other times, domestic actors play the “sovereignty card” to deflect criticism that is, frankly, well-deserved. A case in point, noted former Secretary of Foreign Affairs Jorge Castañeda, was when Andrés Manuel López Obrador dismissed criticism from U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton of the Mexican government’s allegedly flawed investigation of the disappearance of forty-three college students at the hands of police as illegitimate, since it was an internal Mexican affair. In fact, Castañeda argued, outside criticism of Mexico’s internal policy by foreign governments and NGOs, as well as visits of UN human rights special rapporteurs, should be welcomed, since it might advance the cause of justice at home by “helping us to fight our own demons.” Rather than treating any external statement as “inadmissible,” Mexicans need to develop a thicker skin. They also need to get bolder in criticizing others abroad who are in the wrong. Two questions Mexicans must ask themselves in the twenty-first century, Ruiz Massieu concluded, are “what is sovereignty and what are its boundaries?”

Embrace the new multilateralism. Mexico has long been championed universal international organizations, particularly the United Nations, as embodiments of international law and cooperation, as well as settings where it can bridge divides between developed and developing nations. At the same time, Mexico must also adapt to a distinctive trend in contemporary diplomacy: the shift to narrower, “minilateral” groupings of the interested, capable, and likeminded. Mexico has already dipped its toe in these waters, particularly in the trade realm, where it helped to found the Pacific Alliance (with Colombia, Peru, and Chile), as well as the more encompassing mega-regional deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. As Mexico goes global, it will need to develop the diplomatic capacity to pivot with agility among a growing number of ad hoc, informal networks, whose membership will differ according to the task at hand.

Educate Mexican citizens about their stakes in an open world. Around the globe, nationalists and populists have put internationalists on the defensive. One need look only to Mexico’s north, where the presumptive nominee of the U.S. Republican Party has pledged to build a wall to keep illegal immigrants out—and force Mexico to pay for it, no less. But as several speakers noted, Mexicans themselves are not immune to nativist impulses. Indeed, in one 2014 poll, sixty percent of Mexican respondents favored building a wall on their southern border to keep Guatemalans and other Central American migrants out. While the Mexican public is not isolationist, they are significantly less internationalist—and more skeptical of international organizations—than are Mexican elites. And like most people everywhere, they are focused on domestic issues, consistent with Tip O’Neill’s well-known dictum that all politics is local. What Mexicans were only beginning to appreciate, in the words of migration activist Oscar Chacón, was that “our realities have become international.”

As often happens, changing external realities will lead to changing mindsets in Mexico, and eventually to changing policies and institutions. As Mexico goes global, like other emerging and middle powers, it will face growing calls to assume greater burdens to support the international system. For the Mexican government, Ruiz Massieu concluded, the challenge is to help “the Mexican people understand that ‘foreign’ issues will impact them” in ways they can scarcely imagine today.

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