Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Foreign Policy Made in North America?

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When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hosted his counterparts from Mexico and Canada for a North American Ministerial at Boston’s Faneuil Hall last month, the discussions focused on many of the trilateral issues that affect this deeply integrated economic space—citizen security, trade and investment, and energy and climate change. Of interest to foreign-policy wonks, however, were the references to global challenges during the congenial press conference, ranging from Syria and Middle East peace to the promotion of democracy in the Americas.

Behind the scenes, the three ministers had just agreed to the formation of a North American Caucus to consult on policy positions at multilateral fora. According to sources at the State Department the initial step will consist of monthly meetings at the ambassadorial level in the headquarters cities of the United Nations. The hope is that consultations will lead to policy coordination. While this already happens to a great extent with Canada, the challenge will be encouraging Mexico to take a more active global role.

Mexican foreign policy has evolved since the watershed signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement more than 20 years ago. Traditional rhetoric had emphasized Latin American solidarity and non-interventionism—themes that still resonate in Mexico today, despite the steady growth of economic and social integration with the U.S. Between 2000 and 2012, the Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party—PAN) administrations of Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón distanced themselves from their predecessors’ preference for non-alignment and prioritized human rights and democracy in their relations with Latin America. Nevertheless, Mexico continued to punch below its weight on the world stage, and it sometimes found itself at odds with U.S. policy on global issues. Bilateral relations reached a nadir in 2003 when Mexico, a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council at the time, voted against a resolution authorizing military action in Iraq.

In 2012, President Enrique Peña Nieto returned the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) to power without reviving traditional “priístia” foreign policy—apart from efforts to prioritize relations with Latin America, in a nod to criticism that Mexico had neglected its southern neighbors. Peña Nieto’s appointment of José Antonio Meade, a Ph.D. in economics from Yale University and former Secretary of Finance, to Secretary of Foreign Affairs signaled his intention to place economic interests at the center of Mexican foreign policy (and simultaneously de-securitize relations with Washington). He has also demonstrated a keen desire to raise Mexico’s global profile, embarking on peripatetic personal diplomacy, particularly in Asia. On each trip, Mexico’s senior diplomats tweet with the hashtag #MéxicoGlobal.

But what does #MéxicoGlobal really mean? Is it coordination with the United States and Canada or is it diversification of relationships in the emerging world? The Peña Nieto administration is right to want it both ways, but the nascent North American Caucus may compel the Mexican government to take a stance where it otherwise would not.  For example, the U.S. will push Mexico to diverge from the traditional positions of the developing-country caucus at the UN on global issues. In the coming months, these issues will include Syria, Ukraine and UN budgets and dues payments.

President Peña Nieto’s September 2014 announcement that Mexico will participate in UN peacekeeping operations marked an important step in Mexico’s growing role as a global actor. The idea of Mexicans donning blue helmets had been anathema to the traditional principle of non-interventionism, yet a statement by the Mexican Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores (Ministry of Foreign Affairs—SRE) specifically couched the decision in terms of Mexico’s “global responsibility.” 

The U.S. State Department should be encouraging Mexico’s growing willingness to take on such global responsibilities. U.S. diplomats will continue to work with an SRE bureaucracy known for vestigial attachment to non-alignment and resistance to explicit tilts towards the United States, but the agreement to regularly consult on multilateral issues at senior levels represents a real breakthrough. In some ways, the recent U.S. policy shift on Cuba, praised by President Peña Nieto and Secretary Meade, makes cooperation with the U.S. slightly easier for domestic political reasons.

Moreover, the economic logic of North American integration will increasingly dictate multilateral cooperation. As Canadian diplomat Christian Ranger wrote in a Council of the Americas report, “nowhere is the interdependence of the three countries more obvious, and more accepted, than on economic issues: trade negotiations, global finance, energy, and the environment. These should be the natural starting point for coordination.” As parties to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Mexico, Canada, and the United States are similarly interested in deepening their economic ties with the Asia-Pacific. The U.S. should also invite its North American trading partners to join negotiations with the European Union on a trans-Atlantic pact.

These connections between economics and geopolitics will continue to strengthen North America as not only the world’s most competitive production platform but also as a powerful voice in international affairs. While the U.S., Mexico and Canada must continue technical discussions on regulatory harmonization and border infrastructure, limiting their trilateral cooperation to such issues would make the North American idea too insular.

Even as Mexico’s foreign policy continues to evolve, Secretary Meade, for one, recognizes the potential. He concluded his comments in Boston with a revealing statement: “We come away convinced that looking at things from a North America way, with a North American lens, with a North American perspective, we can present ourselves as a united front in the global economy and on global issues.”


Kezia McKeague is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. She is director of government relations at the Council of the Americas in Washington DC.

Tags: foreign policy, multilateral organizations, North America
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