The U.S., Canada, and Mexico can become closer than ever — if their governments can agree on a vision for a trilateral future.
Every electoral cycle in the United States or Mexico brings the opportunity to explore how both nations can deepen their coordination on a range of international issues. The particularities of this U.S. presidential electoral cycle — and the way Mexico and Mexico-related issues were cast during the past 18 months — make this coordination a unique challenge. The resilience and strength of the relationship will be tested over the coming months, and possibly years. Crucial issues may well be revisited in profound ways. Yet the benefits of an enhanced bilateral collaboration for the security and economic well-being of both countries and all of North America, continue to be immense, particularly now if differences can be overcome and a longer-term strategic vision for bilateral and regional ties is adopted.
The North American strategic framework and its potential international footprint continue to be of unique importance for the United States and Mexico, as well as Canada. This is the moment to review existing cooperation and blue-sky thinking about how both Mexico and the United States, and the three North American partners, can expand areas for common regional and international approaches to foreign policy, international economic policy, and aspects of public security policy. This will probably be a case-by-case and an a la carte approach, sometimes working bilaterally and sometimes trilaterally with Canada. There are, however, without doubt a range of advantages to a greater North American strategic footprint covering aspects of international policies in the region and beyond.
Given a U.S. administration that seems to be intent on reviewing paradigms and a new Canadian government that has recommitted to expanding Canada’s global and regional engagement, the situation calls for forward-looking, strategic thinking among the three North American partners as well as between Mexico and the United States. Asymmetries of power exist — and will persist — between the three nations, however, and thus their respective appetites, capabilities, and interests may also diverge, given the nature and scope of specific opportunities and challenges worldwide. The campaign rhetoric and the postelection comments have left wounds, particularly among public opinion, that will take time to heal. But in several areas, enhanced or new collaboration should be of mutual benefit and be a plus for international problem-solving, and therefore should be pursued. For the good of both countries, bilateral problem-solving should begin immediately.
The United States and Canada have been cooperating on international security issues since the inception of NATO, building from the common effort during World War II, and they took first steps to forge a bilateral free trade agreement before the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was crafted. U.S.-Mexican foreign and international policy cooperation was much more limited in the post–World War II years. The 1993 NAFTA accord marked the breakthrough for economic cooperation, which has continued to deepen over the past 23 years. Today, Mexico is the United States’ second largest customer in international trade, and Canada is the largest, and the United States is the largest export and foreign investment market for its neighbors. The United States’ two neighbors are integrated into a continental production chain that makes its North American partners essential for its economic well-being. After 9/11, the United States and Mexico started to build a wider range of cooperation on security issues as well, mostly focused on bilateral threats and the Western Hemisphere, which has widened and deepened over the past 15 years.
Today, under a paradigm of common prosperity and common security, the United States and Mexico, along with Canada, could deepen their partnership in Central America, for example, in addition to enhancing efficient commerce and security on shared borders. The Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) would benefit from additional assistance from their northern neighbors in fighting crime and poverty, tackling the challenges of migration and refugee flows, upgrading customs facilities and transportation corridors, and strengthening access to energy resources.
North America could become a serious energy power in the world for decades to come, helping to reduce significantly dependence on energy resources from other areas of the globe.
Along with Canada, Mexico and the United States have set shared objectives and an action agenda in climate, environmental, and energy cooperation. This set of commitments and cooperation pledges is one of the world’s most ambitious regional agendas for implementation of the commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement, which took effect in 2016. Given the positions enunciated during the U.S. presidential campaign and during the transition, the new U.S. administration may want to rethink aspects of this cooperation, though some aspects make great sense for maintaining the quality of the continental environment independently of the climate change issues. The ability to take a longer strategic view of energy security across the continent could also help the economic well-being of all three countries and their global geostrategic clout in important ways. If handled well, North America could become a serious energy power in the world for decades to come, helping to reduce significantly dependence on energy resources from other areas of the globe.
Also, at the 2016 summit meeting of the North American leaders (NALS), the three countries agreed to deepen synchronization on international issues in the United Nations and other fora and to meet at least twice yearly to identify how and on what issues to better coordinate. That agenda has yet to be defined and the mechanism needs to be implemented, but it provides a range of opportunities for the new U.S. administration to forge new multilateral, regional, and global cooperation with its two large neighbors. Moreover, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto has publically called for his country to play a bigger role in the world, as seen in Mexico’s groundbreaking commitment to participate, for the first time, in peacekeeping operations. That objective has not yet seen much concrete manifestation for a variety of reasons, including limited capacity and available funds. During the 2016 NALS, both Canada and the United States expressed their willingness to provide support to help build Mexico’s peacekeeping capacities.
How Formerly Distant Neighbors Built a Common Agenda
Even if the current agenda for Mexico-U.S. and Mexico-U.S.-Canada cooperation should expand, the progress in collaboration is impressive. In the 1980s, the most well-known English language book about Mexico and the United States described them as “distant neighbors” on foreign policy issues as well as bilateral affairs. Central America was a case in point, with sharp public disagreement over the U.S. policies of intervention in Nicaragua and El Salvador as stark examples of the clash between Mexican and U.S. international approaches and the primary objectives of their respective foreign policies at the time.
In the 1990s, Mexico and the United States began a major shift in how they dealt with each other through the NAFTA negotiations, which brought senior-level officials with trade-related topics into regular contact and established unprecedented ties among the U.S., Mexican, and Canadian private sectors. The important role that the United States played in helping to stabilize the peso in the mid-1990s solidified and expanded that economic and financial cooperation, and built trust between the two financial teams. Thus, the United States was an enthusiastic supporter of Mexico joining the G20 when it was established in 1999, as it was when Mexico joined the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 1994, as the first “developing” or “emerging” economy to join that exclusive club.
Still, through 2000, while U.S. cooperation with Mexican officials was very close on the range of economic and financial issues, there was much less trust and cooperation between the two foreign ministries, let alone among law enforcement and justice agencies. The list of areas of foreign policy cooperation was short. Jeffrey Davidow, the U.S. ambassador at the time, characterized the prickly relationship as “The Bear and the Porcupine.”
Under the presidency of Vicente Fox, however, the Mexican government began to separate its foreign policy from the so-called Estrada Doctrine and other constitutionally mandated foreign policy tenets. These tenets had operated with a maximalist view of sovereignty, claiming that foreign governments should not judge, for good or bad, changes or events in governments in other nations, because doing so could be seen to impinge on their sovereignty. This doctrine had limited the ability of Mexico and the United States to collaborate on many foreign policy issues, most notably over human rights. However, Mexico started speaking out more frankly than ever before about democracy and human rights in Cuba, as well as in Venezuela, during the Fox years. Mexico also made a series of forays to demonstrate international leadership, winning a rotating seat on the UN Security Council, running unsuccessfully for the head of the World Health Organization, and winning the position of OECD Secretary General in 2006. In response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Mexico also dispatched military personnel, a navy ship, and civilian experts to help in disaster recovery — the first uniformed deployment of Mexican military personnel to the United States since World War II.
These endeavors generated more U.S.-Mexico dialogue and coordination, and witnessed the launch of biannual policy planning talks between the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Office and the Mexican foreign ministry’s (SRE) Coordinación General de Asesores to discuss relevant global and regional issues — and, in fact, purposefully setting aside all issues of the bilateral relationship itself. Mexico also replicated this model with Canada and other nations, and included consultations between the three North American UN missions. The United States also actively campaigned for José Ángel Gurría to head the OECD, based in part on his strong role in deepening U.S.-Mexico cooperation in the 1990s.
From 2006 to 2012, President Felipe Calderón inspired efforts to expand Mexico’s dialogues and outreach in Latin America, with Europe, and with Asia. He increased funding for the foreign ministry; established a small foreign assistance agency; balanced comments on human rights with dialogues with Cuba, Venezuela, and others; and agreed to a strategic dialogue with the European Union (EU). His government also successfully launched a series of free trade agreements, including (along with Canada) the incorporation of Mexico into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, which has made Mexico the country with the greatest number of free trade partners in the world. During this period, Mexico also launched the Pacific Alliance with free trade partners Colombia, Chile, and Peru (of which two, Peru and Chile, are also TPP partners). Mexico participated in relief efforts in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, an example of a willingness to help regional neighbors in need and collaborate in international humanitarian efforts, at least in the Western Hemisphere.
Calderón also greatly expanded practical U.S.-Mexico security and intelligence cooperation with the creation of the Merida Initiative in 2008, aimed at deepening U.S. support for Mexico in its struggle against organized crime. This expanded cooperation on security matters included the two governments working together to foil an Iranian plot to use Mexican criminals to attack a target in Washington, D.C., and to deter a plot by one of Muammar Gaddafi’s sons who illicitly was seeking refuge in Mexico. On health security, Mexico and its North American partners collaborated successfully in responding to the outbreak of the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, and have continued to collaborate and respond to health threats. Similarly, under President Calderón, the two countries began cooperating more closely on bilateral and international environmental issues.
During the Calderón years, the U.S.-Mexico foreign policy dialogue expanded, but in general Mexico’s willingness to get involved in international issues, especially outside of international economic and financial themes and the Western Hemisphere, remained limited. The three North American nations decided to channel efforts and resources to preposition resources and capabilities for disaster relief and emergency response in Central America and the Caribbean, an area where synergies and complementarities could help shape a truly North American rapid response capability. Unfortunately, this initiative has not yet materialized.
President Peña Nieto made clear his priority on strengthening North American collaboration and building Mexico’s international role. An unprecedented number of bilateral U.S.-Mexico mechanisms now exist to manage and guide policy cooperation on the economy, commerce, finance, public security, immigration, defense, the environment, education, science, and business collaboration. As part of a deeper dialogue between assistance agencies, for example, the United States and Mexico launched their first joint development project in El Salvador. The two countries also are collaborating on efforts to manage surging migrant flows from the Northern Triangle through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Mexico’s SEGOB. Mexico has participated in key meetings with the United States, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador on how to better support the latter three countries in facing their public security and economic problems. Mexican and U.S. officials have also worked closely to help address energy needs in those three counties by exploring natural gas pipelines and expanded electricity flows from Mexico southward in a series of meetings with Central American leaders and officials.
The United States has called for Mexico to stop punching below its weight and to more actively participate in the multilateral handling of international issues outside the immediate North American region. U.S. diplomats believe that Mexico’s reasoned approach and resources could be beneficial to international coalitions, such as in dealing with refugee challenges or in helping to fulfill international peacekeeping needs. From a Mexican perspective, and particularly in the aftermath of the harsh rhetoric of the presidential campaign, there is a hope that the United States will stop taking Mexico for granted on all fronts and acknowledge that Mexico is the key strategic partner of the United States in the Americas.
Octavio Paz, a Mexican Nobel Prize winner for Literature, once wrote that Mexicans and Americans had a hard time getting along because Americans did not know how to listen and Mexicans did not know how to speak up. In recent years, Americans have been doing a better job at listening and Mexicans are also doing a better job of speaking up. This improvement bodes well for the relationship and for the type of frank and constructive, case-by-case collaboration on foreign policy issues discussed here.
The Road Ahead
Of course, major questions remain unanswered about what approach will emerge regarding NAFTA and on trade negotiations with the Pacific nations. The paths taken on these issues will have a major impact on a number of domains, including prospects for international collaboration. Recall, for example, that the TPP was a vessel for upgrading and modernizing NAFTA, in addition to its objectives of expanding trade and strategically linking the Americas with Asian and Pacific nations. Given the current U.S. administration’s disinclination to pursue the TPP, the North American partners will need to sort through the issues related to modernizing NAFTA, and to decide if they will pursue, either together or individually, alternative efforts to construct a hemispheric and transpacific coalition of those open to free trade. They also need to consider how they will respond if others take the initiative to fill the space left by TPP with other visions. Similarly, the two nations need to sort through the tough issues related the proposed border wall, a potential Border Adjustment Tax in the United States, and U.S. criticism of new investment in Mexico aimed at producing for the U.S. market.
Improving the efficient movement of people and goods across the U.S.-Mexican and U.S.-Canadian borders will save many billions of dollars for North American producers and consumers.
While considering the provisions of NAFTA, Mexico and the United States will need to intensify efforts to ensure that their common border is more efficient in promoting commerce and legitimate travel and more secure against terrorists and illicit trafficking in drugs, arms, money, and people. Improving the efficient movement of people and goods across the U.S.-Mexican and U.S.-Canadian borders will save many billions of dollars for North American producers and consumers. All of this work on commerce and investment is vital for North America’s global competitiveness.
A related aspect of global cooperation is how the countries build new trade and investment bridges with other regions such as Europe. Canada, for example, already has a new arrangement with the EU, and Mexico is scheduled to renegotiate its agreement with the EU. The United States has been negotiating with the EU, too, but it is not clear where that project will go under the new U.S. administration.
Even if the Mexican government is embarking on areas of closer work with the United States and Canada, as expressed in the 2016 meeting of North America’s leaders, it no doubt will want to retain its independent profile on many issues. For example, on nuclear disarmament issues, Mexico and the United States have long taken and still maintain divergent approaches. Canada also likely will have areas where it will prefer to take positions or offer initiatives independently of its North American neighbors. Yet there is good reason to hope that the United States and Mexico, and Canada, can expand the scope and substance of foreign policy cooperation.
Central America: Coordination in North America and the Western Hemisphere will likely remain a key area for joint foreign policy work given Mexico’s focus and limited strategic projection resources. Helping the Northern Triangle countries is a natural area for closer practical on-the-ground cooperation. Those governments have been struggling to fight criminal gang violence, improve governance, and grow their economies. They are also facing substantial flows of migrants, including families and unaccompanied children, heading north through Mexico toward the United States. The United States has already committed hundreds of millions of dollars of assistance to help the Northern Triangle countries. Mexico and the United States are collaborating to help strengthen Mexico’s national immigration service. And, as noted, Mexico and the United States are coordinating efforts to build energy connectivity to the three Central American countries. Mexico must decide if it is willing and able to expand its on-the-ground presence in these countries to coordinate more closely with the United States on specific capacity-building efforts. Canada could be a welcome addition, as a big step forward would be either bilateral or trilateral coordination in practical capacity-building assistance.
The rest of the Americas: The democracy and trade agenda in the Americas has a potentially rich cooperation agenda, whether in a three-way group or as part of larger coalitions. The Organization of American States (OAS) needs to be revitalized, and its institutions and practices supporting democracy and human rights must be reinforced and protected. Supporting OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro in his efforts could be vital. In this connection, Venezuela is likely to present a major humanitarian and diplomatic problem set for the region — a coalition for action is needed, one that includes but expands far beyond the three North American partners. Similarly, the Colombian peace process will need international partners, particularly Mexico, the United States, and Canada, to provide support and engagement in fields as diverse as social resilience, and economic sustainability and opportunity programs. U.S. success and experience with place-based strategies and Mexico’s with conditional cash transfer programs could be relevant in supporting the Colombian government’s efforts to bring opportunity and growth to former conflict areas. And the challenges and opportunities in Cuba will need positive inputs from a range of countries, including the North American partners and the EU, to move toward more respect for human rights and democratic practices.
On the trade and economic agenda, the three North American partners will no doubt want to collaborate on next steps with the other negotiating partners from the Americas (Chile and Peru) once the United States sorts out its internal debate on the TTP trade pact. And the Pacific Alliance, to which Mexico belongs, might serve as a conveyor belt between like-minded countries in the hemisphere trying to build a 21st-century, rules-based trading system working with the United States and Canada. Argentina, for example, has signaled its strong interest in helping to build new trade bridges in the hemisphere.
International and Multilateral Coordination: As noted above, Mexico and the United States have in this century greatly expanded their coordination on these issues, and along with Canada, in June 2016 committed to an effort to improve that coordination through twice-a-year cooperation among senior foreign policy officials. The United States and Canada also have expressed willingness to support Mexico as it further develops its nascent peacekeeping capacities. Eventually, perhaps, the three countries could support a common peacekeeping facility where their trainers and troops could work together. A common deployment for disaster relief or peacekeeping should also be considered. These areas for augmented cooperation deserve concerted bilateral and trilateral efforts.
There is also good potential for cooperative efforts on a range of international governance issues such as refugees and migration. All three countries have long histories of accepting refugees, and Mexico now shares with the United States the challenge of managing increased migration of families and unaccompanied children from Central America. Mexico and Canada joined the United States in cohosting a leaders’ summit on refugees on September 20, 2016, on the margins of the 2016 UN General Assembly.
In the area of law enforcement, justice, and drug policy, Mexico, Canada, and the United States are working to fight transnational criminal organizations and trafficking of persons. At the June 2016 NALS, the three North American leaders agreed to convene an annual North American Dialogue on Drug Policy to exchange information on drug trends, increase trilateral coordination on drug policy, and develop government actions to protect citizens from harmful drugs and drug trafficking. On October 27, 2016, officials from all three governments convened for the first dialogue meeting. The meeting focused on the shared illicit drug problem from production and trade to consumption and misuse. Specifically, participants discussed various domestic challenges, including the opioid crisis, and how each country is responding to them. This discussion resulted in the identification of best practices, methods to gather data from multisectoral perspectives, and possible trilateral lines of cooperation to address North American drug challenges. As both the United States and Mexico rethink the effectiveness of their policies and as U.S. states change their treatment of marijuana, there will be additional need and room for new thinking and cooperative approaches bilaterally and in international forums on how to treat illicit drugs. Given this new legal and regulatory landscape regarding cannabis in the United States, business as usual or old collaboration paradigms will not suffice. Reinforced bilateral, trilateral, and broader cooperation on efforts to fight international criminal networks must be a priority at the borders, on the smuggling routes that cross the continent, and via the trafficking into North America from elsewhere. These efforts also will help combat the trafficking of arms, people, and illicit money.
Meanwhile, Mexico, the United States, and Canada can look to support policy initiatives in such institutions as the G20 on finance and development issues, including tax havens. Regarding international environment and energy arenas, they can reinforce or reshape cooperative initiatives on the ground in North America and mobilize the private sector, while sharing best practices internationally. The three energy ministers have already established a common work agenda, which should produce work areas and initiatives for the North Americans to take to wider energy forums. (For more information on U.S.-Mexico energy coordination efforts, see Duncan Wood’s article in this issue). This should be an area of continued intense cooperation to establish as much synergy as possible between approaches to development of all energy sources and the energy industries across the continent.
New threats to security: North American common domain awareness and defense cooperation are critical components of the respective bilateral relationships and regional interests. Given the investment in shared production and trading networks across North America and the increased threats of the weaponization of social media and digital platforms, as well as international cyberattacks on public and private infrastructure, the three North American countries need to develop shared protocols and standards as well as a rapid response capacity to support neighbors and sectors in the event of an attack. The three have been having conversations on these topics, but there is much to do to build reinforcing capacity and cooperation and existing protocols still do not interface adequately. A shared trusted traveler program, a simple but important piece of the puzzle, is under development and should be put into place as swiftly as possible. The three countries are also working bilaterally to enhance information sharing so that all three governments can be alerted if a person of interest for possible terror or extremist ties tries to enter North America. This trilateral cooperation against terrorists and violent extremists should become an even more important layer of defense.
U.S.-Canadian military-to-military cooperation has been very tight since World War II and the two have been integrated in the NORAD defense network since 1958. The U.S.-Mexico military-to-military relationships were more distant but have steadily improved over the previous decade. Mexico has sent liaisons (Navy/SEMAR and Army/SEDENA) to U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs. U.S.-Mexico defense consultations, exercises, and joint training have increased, and Mexico is now buying more defense supplies than ever before through foreign military sales (FMS). Mexico should, however, be more intent on ensuring its interoperational capabilities with its North American partners as it acquires new material and equipment, whether through FMS, direct purchases, or indigenous development. The U.S., Canadian, and Mexican defense ministers also have been meeting every two years, which should provide a common basis for interacting with others in the hemisphere in areas such as disaster response and relief, a natural and logical area of convergence for their armed forces.
The Potential for Common Purpose
Given current budgetary constraints, Mexico is unlikely to have many new resources to make available for such cooperation, but its willingness to participate even in a limited range of topics can be useful in many international fora, including in building coalitions with other more moderate, midsized countries that are venturing toward collaboration with developed countries on issues where North-South or Developed-Developing divides used to define issues.
For its part, Mexico, and Canada too, will not want to be seen as mere “me too” partners of the United States but will want to retain independent profiles. Both neighbors will also look to the United States to show flexibility when developing common policy approaches. There will be international issues where the United States and Canada are more natural partners as they are in NATO, and issues where the United States will seek to move ahead with or without its North American neighbors, yet these cases still leave a large and potentially fruitful field for expanding a valuable North American foreign policy footprint.
From a strategic perspective, each of the three North American countries can enhance the security of their neighbors if they build, solidify, and improve cooperation and collaboration against threats like terrorism and crime. Similarly, if they can work through current differences, there is great potential for an enhanced economic and energy platform across North America that would make all three more prosperous and competitive. It will take hard and determined efforts to work through these issues, but the long-term benefit could be enormous.
Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan is an international consultant and former Mexican Ambassador to the United States. He served as a career diplomat in the Mexican Foreign Service for 20 years and received the rank of career ambassador in 2006.
Earl Anthony Wayne served as a U.S. diplomat from 1975 to 2015 and was confirmed as a Career Ambassador in 2010. He is currently a Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center and a Senior Non-Resident Advisor at the Atlantic Council and the Center for Security and International Studies.