September has been a difficult month for U.S. policy toward Latin America. Between the crisis in Syria and the NSA surveillance disclosures, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry cancelled an address to the annual CAF conference, Vice President Joe Biden cancelled a trip to Panama, and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a state visit to Washington DC.
The sole exception to the raft of cancellations was the launch of the U.S.-Mexico High Level Economic Dialogue (HLED), which still took place on September 20 in Mexico City, in the presence of Biden and several U.S. cabinet officials.
That the Mexico trip was planned at all testifies to the importance of the economic relationship with our third-largest trading partner. That it happened according to schedule says a great deal about Biden’s emerging role as an envoy to the Americas, and about the Mexican administration’s pragmatism and diplomatic maturity.
Biden first outlined the Obama administration’s commitment to deepening engagement with the Western Hemisphere at the Council of the Americas’ 43rd Washington Conference on the Americas in May. Soon after, he traveled to Brazil, Colombia, and Trinidad and Tobago. He also hired Juan S. González, a well-respected Latin Americanist as his Special Advisor on the Western Hemisphere (a first for his small foreign policy team). This week, he is scheduled to meet with Uruguayan President José Mujica as well as with members of U.S. Congress for a wide-ranging conversation on the region. Previous presidents have appointed special envoys for the Americas, but in Obama’s second term, the vice president himself has emerged as the de facto—and much more powerful—emissary for U.S. interests to Latin America’s rising economic and diplomatic powers.
Of those powers, Mexico is the clear priority. “The Western Hemisphere has always mattered to the United States, but I think it matters more today because it has more potential than any time in American history,” Biden pronounced at the conference in May. Last week in Mexico, he was explicit about the primacy of economic interests with our NAFTA partner: “There is no relationship that we value more, there is no economic relationship that we think holds the most promise and there is no part of the world that has the opportunity to do as much to generate economic growth over the next 20 or 30 years in the hemisphere.”Despite the competing pressures in Washington, Biden made a personal decision to maintain his commitment in Mexico. According to his staff, he intends to not only attend the upcoming annual meetings of the HLED, but also roll up his sleeves and knock some heads together on some of the nitty-gritty issues that have traditionally impeded the competitiveness of the two economies. Examples include the U.S. interest in seeking an open skies agreement with Mexico, as well as cooperating on identifying the border crossings that are most in need of infrastructure upgrades. As Duncan Wood and Christopher Wilson of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars have written, “A job of this magnitude requires a champion—preferably from the White House —and U.S.-Mexico relations may have just found one.”
On the Mexican side, President Enrique Peña Nieto has successfully shifted the focus of Mexico’s most important bilateral relationship from security challenges to economic opportunities. Even when U.S. government officials offered to incorporate security into the discussions last week, the Mexican government insisted on maintaining the emphasis on the three broad pillars outlined by the HLED: competitiveness and connectivity; economic growth, productivity, entrepreneurship, and innovation; and regional and global leadership.
Thanks to a coincidence of timing, Peña Nieto’s pragmatic attitude towards the United States stands in acute contrast with Rousseff’s suspicious one. Just two days before Biden landed in Mexico City, the Brazilian government announced the indefinite postponement of the planned October 23 state visit , due to revelations that the NSA had monitored Rousseff’s e-mails and phone calls—a decision intended to be a “loud public rebuke to the United States” and a domestic rallying call, according to AS/COA’s senior director of policy, Christopher Sabatini. Mexico was also an NSA target, yet the Mexican government’s reaction has proven much milder. Not only did Biden’s visit proceed as planned, but Mexican government officials insisted that the scandal did not merit discussion because President Obama is committed to investigating the issue.
From Washington’s perspective, it’s a relief to see Mexico declining any temptation to grandstand. It attests not only to the transformation of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI), but also to the depth and breadth of North American economic integration, which dwarfs U.S.-Brazil trade statistics. Brazil may have the liberty to prioritize short-term benefits to domestic politics (though at long-term foreign-policy costs), but Mexico has no such incentive. This realization, coupled with high-level attention from the White House, bodes well for the future of the U.S.-Mexico relationship.