In the new issue of Americas Quarterly, we asked people, “What would you tell the next U.S. president about Latin America?” To see other authors’ responses, click here.
Editor’s Note: As with our other authors, we asked Ambassador Sarukhan to write a memo regardless of who wins November’s election. However, he ultimately concluded that the two scenarios were too different, and opted to write a piece as if Hillary Clinton had been confirmed as the victor.
Dear Madam President,
Congratulations on your victory! The presidential campaign has truly been grueling, and its effects have certainly been felt abroad, as partners and allies have witnessed with dismay the unfortunate demagoguery and nativism that unfolded throughout the year. As you are well aware, it will take time and effort to reverse some of the setbacks for the United States’ interests, soft power, nation-branding, and public diplomacy footprints abroad.
Probably no country has been so affected by this over the course of the election than Mexico. This requires a sober, honest assessment of U.S. interests. As you put together your foreign policy team and establish priorities and goals for U.S. diplomacy in the next four years, Mexico and our bilateral ties, in the context of a larger North American framework, need to be at the top of your list. There undoubtedly will be many international issues and challenges jockeying for your attention in the days ahead. But restoring a sense of strategic priority and direction in the Mexico-U.S. relationship will not only go a long way in sending the right signal to Mexico City at this juncture; it will also convey an unequivocal message to the U.S. public that there is no relationship so fundamental to the long-term security, prosperity and well-being of the U.S. than its relationship with its southern neighbor.
The good news is that, as you know well, this relationship has been profoundly transformed over the past two decades, and it will take much more than the bombast xenophobia, irresponsibility and total disregard for facts of these past months to derail it. In different ways, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the tragic events of 9/11 have been crucibles of a new and fundamentally different interaction between both countries.
NAFTA created a sea change and a unique economic paradigm in today’s global economy. Joint supply chains and common production platforms underpin 6 million U.S. jobs and a two-way trade of $1.4 billion dollars per day. Mexico buys more U.S. exports than the combined purchases of Japan and China; the BRICs; the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean; or of the United Kingdom, France, Italy and the Netherlands. Our societies are truly interconnected, as millions of Mexicans and the largest American expat community living abroad have made their homes in each other’s countries.
And post 9/11 security has compelled our two nations to deepen and widen security and intelligence cooperation, whether to confront transnational criminal organizations operating on both sides of our border, or to address other regional and global security challenges. The test — and opportunity — here will be in developing a 21st century intelligence- and technology-driven border with modern infrastructure. But in sum, these trends show that a rising tide in Mexico will lift boats on both sides of the Rio Grande.
I am fully aware that all this does not fit on a campaign bumper sticker, and that conveying it to the public is never easy, particularly at a time when millions of Americans feel that the economy has left them behind and that inequality has deepened.
Our partnership faces many challenges, not the least of which is foundering public perceptions of the other nation on both sides of the border. One of the keys to surmounting this challenge lies in improved public diplomacy efforts, which you appreciate. So many of our challenges and opportunities are intertwined and have truly become “intermestic” — rooted in the domestic politics, values, ideologies, constraints and specific interests of each nation, yet often expressed in a complex international, crossborder bilateral dialogue.
This provides your administration with an opportunity: Design and implement a more ambitious, comprehensive, long-term, mutually reinforcing and sustained public diplomacy agenda with regard to Mexico, whether through significantly expanded educational exchanges, putting your weight behind the proposal of a joint U.S.-Mexico bid for the soccer 2026 World Cup, building upon the growing Latino engagement with Mexico, or using the dynamism of our transborder region — economically, socially and culturally — as a spark plug for public policy innovation and societal engagement.
Mexico and the U.S. are converging, as societies and as economies. Successes over the past decade in significantly improving our bilateral ties (notwithstanding the tyranny of past mistakes, failures and lost opportunities) need to be bolstered, and the best way to do so early on is for you to continue with the important tradition of U.S. presidents-elect meeting with their Mexican counterparts before assuming office. As the U.S. once again looks to foreign markets to promote economic growth and job creation, you would do well, Madam President, to underscore that the greatest opportunity — and the future — lies squarely with Mexico and the North American region.
Sarukhan is an international consultant based in Washington, D.C. A board member of the Americas Society, he is the former Mexican ambassador to the U.S. (2007–13) and a career diplomat for more than 20 years. He served as Mexican consul general in New York and chief of policy planning at the Mexican foreign ministry, among other posts.