For generations, world leaders looked to the United States for consent before approaching Latin American leaders. U.S. presidents James Monroe and Teddy Roosevelt threatened to make war if external powers sought to interfere in Latin America—and European powers, for the most part, followed the script. The tradition continued after World War II and throughout the Cold War, but it changed the day Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011) became president of Brazil.
Disinterest, followed by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and financial troubles everywhere, further removed the U.S. from Latin American affairs at the beginning of this century. In a few short years, Silva managed to post the Brazilian colors atop the Latin America stage. Mexico made a similar run, but its internal struggle with organized crime, corruption, dysfunctional politics and constant disputes with the U.S. over a number of political issues limited its chances.
However, today is another day, and Mexico has yet another opportunity to enter the big leagues.
Unlike his predecessor Felipe Calderón, newly-minted Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has decided to place more emphasis on the economy and cross-party negotiation. His leads on international affairs, José Antonio Meade and Eduardo Medina Mora, are experienced practitioners who understand commerce, power, diplomatic speak and international trends. More importantly, these men have the ability to leverage Mexico’s existing relationship with the U.S. and its growing commercial relationship with Asia and Europe to project Mexico’s power and prestige.
Meade was named secretary of state when Peña Nieto assumed office as president. The lawyer and Yale-trained economist has held several positions in government since 1991 in which he developed and promoted national banking and savings policies at different commissions: his most recent public posts included secretary of energy and treasury under Calderón (2006-2012). Most notably, from 2011-2012, Meade coordinated G-20 financial policy when Mexico held the group´s presidency. He has been tested by public opinion and Congress, is well-versed in the Mexican economy and is popular in international circles.
Medina Mora is also a new addition to the Peña Nieto administration and was named Mexico´s ambassador to the U.S. in January. Medina Mora, a well-known and respected lawyer, began a distinguished public service career as director of Mexico´s intelligence agency, the Centro de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional (National Center for Research and National Security –CISEN) (2001-2005) and as secretary of public safety (2005-2006). He later served as Mexico´s attorney general (2006-2009) and was subsequently promoted to Mexican ambassador to the United Kingdom (2009-2012).
As attorney general, Medina Mora faced a number of challenges as Mexico´s northern border became engulfed in what seemed an unwinnable war against drug cartels. It is rumored that Medina Mora, who was a key negotiator of the Mérida Initiative, became ambassador to the UK after officials worried that the Mexican government would be unable to protect Medina Mora and his family.
Today, Meade and Medina Mora work for a Mexico that is on the rise. Both officials have have seen Mexico open its economy, favor political pluralism and embrace globalization in the last half-century.
These circumstances, for instance, compelled Mexico to pass a labor reform bill that privileges labor market flexibility and plays down outdated closed-economy norms. The nation also joined the G-20, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) and the Pacific Alliance. The latter, which includes Chile, Colombia and Peru, promises to become Latin America´s largest trading bloc, exporting 60 percent more than Mercosur.
Mexico is also a negotiating country in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This alliance between Asia, North and South America has the potential to become the world´s largest trade bloc, exporting everything from leather and vehicles to electronic goods, wool, metals, fish, and wine.
For his part, Meade will work to build rapport with multilateral organizations, individual countries and transnational businesses. He will also work to ensure Mexico honors its international commitment to human rights and freedom of the press, and will continue to lead international efforts in the area of climate change.
One potential source of distraction for the new secretary of state will undoubtedly be organized crime, which continues to affect tourism and foreign investment. On this issue, he will have to work double to assure international audiences that Mexico has the capacity to squash criminal networks and the ability to protect innocent lives and investments.
Medina Mora, on the other hand, will work to improve dialogue with the U.S. on issues of immigration, cross-border security and organized crime. His experience at CISEN, the attorney general´s office, and later as a negotiator of the Mérida Initiative, will allow for productive sessions with his U.S. counterparts.
Mexicans in the U.S. should also applaud Medina Mora´s appointment, as he will lobby effectively and at the highest levels on their behalf on a number of issues. Moreover, the ambassador´s relationship with senior U.S. officials, políticos, diplomats, academics, and policymakers will help elevate Mexico´s international profile.
Currently, Mexico has the world´s 12th largest economy, surpassing Spain, Australia and Canada. The nation has much to accomplish in areas of poverty reduction, private sector monopolies, public education, and inequality. Now, however, the country also has Latin America´s brightest and most politically-astute, attuned and connected sons managing its complicated international relations. And for this reason, the nation has an excellent chance of becoming primus inter pares in Latin America and a heavyweight elsewhere. Let´s hope Meade and Medina Mora achieve both.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.