SEA-CHANGE

Mexico 2018 | DIPLOMACY | REVIEW

With AMLO to assume office on December 1, Mexico's first leftwing president since Lázaro Cárdenas stepped down in 1940 has promised to adopt a non-interventionist stance and have friendly relations with all peoples and governments.

While the election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, also known as AMLO, has left few indifferent observers at home or in the region, fears over his presidency have focused chiefly on his domestic economic policies rather than how he will represent the nation on the global stage. That being said, a trademark worry of many on both sides of the border was that the “firebrand" will take Trump's bait and engage in a nationalist tit-for-tat with Washington once assuming office. Given earlier claims that he would also re-examine the privatization of Mexico's oil and gas industry, a hugely lucrative one for American refiners, and looming uncertainty over the fate of NAFTA, AMLO's presidency stands at the cusp of an extremely important era for Mexico's foreign relations and political economy.

So far, however, the president-elect has both acted and sounded the role of senior statesman. After surviving a cordial 30-minute congratulatory call with President Trump on July 1, AMLO then met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and outgoing President Peña Nieto on July 13 to discuss irregular migration to the US, transnational criminal organizations, trade tensions, and the ongoing opiate epidemic in the US. While Pompeo expressed Trump's wish to strengthen bilateral ties, AMLO's soon-to-be top diplomat, Marcelo Ebrard, said the talks were “frank, respectful, and cordial."

What's more, AMLO has also pledged to meet with Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as soon as he assumes office to continue his predecessor's efforts to reform NAFTA to the best of each party's interests. He also handed the American delegation, which included the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner and Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin, a proposal containing “key points of the Mexican-United States bilateral relation" to be delivered to President Trump. While the latter's contents have yet to become public, they are widely expected to contain his suggestions for greater economic development and anti-poverty measures to be taken in Mexico and Central America as a critical means of reducing irregular migration flows. Indeed, the Trump administration is said to be pressuring Mexico to declare itself a “safe third country" for migrants seeking passage to the US, a controversial status that would require them to first claim asylum in Mexico before their appeal to cross the Rio Grande is registered.

Ironically, however, AMLO's pursuit of social justice and higher wages for Mexican workers may serve a common cause with Trump's stated desire to reverse NAFTA's downward pull on American manufacturing output and wages. Though not quite a zero-sum game, every gain in Mexican labor standards will have a knock-on effect for American firms considering relocation south of the border. While social equality is not in the markets' long-term interest, the American side has refrained from punishing the peso, most likely because of AMLO's strikingly conciliatory tone toward the US. Against most predictions to the contrary, the peso actually rose in the weeks following the election, from 20.18 to the dollar on July 1 to 18.85/USD three weeks later.

These early developments reflect AMLO's maturity as a politician and statesman, but what do they say about his actual foreign policy? While leading American scribes forbade a “return to the 1930s" should the country's first leftwing candidate in decades be elected, the reality is not far off: building on the non-interventionism of the Estrada Doctrine in the decades following the Mexican Revolution (1910-20)—an inclination as interestingly suited to then as now—AMLO has promised quite simply that, “Mexico will have friendly relations with all the peoples and governments of the world." But how does this translate into actual policy?

Since people must love themselves before getting on with others, AMLO has already shaken things up at home by canceling a purchase of eight MH-60R Seahawk helicopters from the US by the Mexican navy in April to the tune of some USD1.36 billion. Intended for use in Mexico's crackdown on drug traffickers crossing the Caribbean en route to the US, AMLO claimed first that they were unaffordable, and second that their scrapping was part of a broader rethink of Mexico City's largely failed war on drugs.

Abandoning the security-steeped approach largely responsible for upward of 150,000 deaths since former president Felipe Calderon declared war on drugs in 2006, AMLO has suggested he will seek a negotiated peace with Mexico's cartels, including amnesty for several characters currently being targeted by security forces. Equally radical, the candidate tapped to be his Secretary of the Interior, former Supreme Court justice Olga Sánchez Cordero, has already gone on record saying she will push to decriminalize marijuana and regulate the pharmaceutical sale of opium. When it comes to the war on drugs, the president-elect has said his government will do “whatever it takes" to obtain peace.
Despite desiring, à la Atatürk, peace at home and in the world, Mexico will be forced to take a stand on two unfolding catastrophes in the region that will surely require more than reassuring words and good intentions: Venezuela and Nicaragua. Though unfair to taint the president-elect with unfounded accusations of Chavismo, a leftist Mexican president's ability to tilt the scales toward justice in Venezuela, however feeble, are still very real. While the government of outgoing president Peña Nieto has tried to pressure that of Venezuelan president Maduro—under pressure from the US, according to state-run media in Caracas—incoming foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard has already reiterated that AMLO will hold tight to a “respectful foreign policy of non-intervention."

To be sure, he did add that: “That does not mean that we're not concerned about the situation in… Venezuela. We're going to look into it and see how we can… contribute in the best way." However, the fact that Venezuelan and Russian media outlets have been the loudest and proudest in proclaiming Mexico's newfound neutrality does not bode well for speaking truth (or diplomacy) to power in Managua or Caracas.

Taking a step back, does this mean that Mexico, too, is converging upon a Chinese and Russian-led international order of nonintervention over and against the wishes of a crumbling Washington consensus? Not necessarily. But as uncertainty over looming NAFTA talks poisons the air—not to mention Trump's inaugural ditching of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, of which Mexico was a key signatory, China's roll as Mexico's second-largest trading partner only grows more important. Growing by more than 50% from 2010 to 2016 to over USD75 billion in bilateral trade, more than 1,000 Chinese companies now have set up shop in Mexico. This includes not only telecommunications giants such as Lenovo, ZTE, and Huawei, but industrial manufacturers like Hisense, Hier, and Sanhua; automobile manufacturers like BAIC, Minth, Minhua, and JAC Motors; and renewable energy providers such as Envison Energy and Jinko Solar.


Perhaps the most telling moment came last September whilst President Peña Nieto was hosting NAFTA renegotiation talks. Midway through the week, he surprised his guests by abruptly setting off for the 9th BRICS summit in Xiamen, China. As the Mexican ambassador to China, José Luis Bernal Rodríguez, told reporters, the two countries' relationship was at its “best moment in history," which does not mean it no longer needs the US. The latter still purchases 80% of Mexico's exports, including everything from fruit and vegetables to automobiles and beer, compared to China's less than 1%. As Ebrard told reporters in July: “The treatment we've received by the US government has been terrible. But we need to find whatever areas of understanding there might be."