With the Afghan crisis, the domestically-focused Biden administration now is consumed with foreign policy challenges: China, Pakistan, India, Russia, Iran and the Middle East.
There’s at least one more.
Some 30 years ago at global conference, my wife, in an interview, asked Helmut Schmidt to critique the United States’ greatest foreign policy shortcoming. “Mexico,” the former German chancellor replied. “You don’t pay sufficient attention to your neighbor.”
The same advice could be offered today to the Biden administration.
On immigration, economics, drugs, law enforcement, U.S.-Mexico relations are vital to our national interests. Mexico is our second-biggest trading partner, behind Canada and well ahead of China. There are many business relations. Cooperation is central to mitigate the border crisis. There is a critical need to stem the flow of drugs from Mexico — and the flow of guns from the United States into Mexico which end up in the hands of the violent gangs.
“It is really important that both sides develop a better understanding of these issues,” says Jim Jones, who was ambassador to Mexico during the Clinton administration. A top Washington lawyer, Jones still is involved in business dealings there.
He worries about the mindsets.
“There still are too many Americans who look upon Mexico as a backward country with donkeys and siestas in the afternoon.” In reality, Mexico is the world’s 15th largest economy — far bigger than Turkey, Sweden or Saudi Arabia. Jones notes that for all his foreign policy experience and expertise, Biden never has focused much on Mexico.
Mexico’s left-wing President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador needs to better appreciate the importance of his huge neighbor to the north. He will stick with his “non-interventionist” foreign policy, but would be wise to cut back on his support for Venezuela, Cuba and even North Korea. He was one of the last world leaders to recognize and congratulate Biden after he won last year’s presidential election, waiting almost six weeks.
That reflects Lopez Obrador’s surprising affinity with Donald Trump. The former president only cared about the border and his crazy idea to build a wall, letting the Mexicans off the hook on drug trafficking, human rights, labor and environmental standards.
Trump’s constant insults of Mexicans didn’t much matter to their leaders as they were getting their way on other matters. “They basically ignored it, chalking it up to he was just crazy,” says Jones.
A good start is the renegotiated North American Free Trade pact, approved last year. It was a Trump initiative, but most of the specifics — including strengthening environmental and labor standards — were crafted by congressional Democrats, winning support from labor as well as business interests. Now it has to be implemented.
Front and center politically is the migrant issue. Many Mexicans fearful of gang violence at home have fled and been apprehended at the border. There are renewed pledges of cooperation from Mexico although the record has been mixed.
Mexico needs to accept more American assistance to combat the violent gangs. This includes support and training for police forces, courts, prosecutors and to stem widespread corruption that dominates parts of the country. Lopez Obrador has taken a soft line on crime, the focus on root causes, “hugs not bullets.” Hugs don’t do much for thugs.
If they get tough and achieve any success, it will make Mexico a more attractive investment. This also would help curb the flood of illegal drugs, especially fentanyl, coming into the United States.
The corollary is there needs to be a much better effort to reduce the avalanche of guns coming from the United States to Mexico, many of which land in the hands of the drug cartels. The Mexican government recently brought a lawsuit, seeking billions against U.S. gun manufacturers, including Smith & Wesson, Colt, and Glock for their aggressive marketing tactics that facilitate these illicit transactions. Mexico, which has strict gun laws, contends about a half million guns come in every year from the U.S.
Because of laws promulgated by the powerful gun lobby, Mexico will have a difficult time winning this suit. But any discovery process or a trial could produce damaging information about any shady tactics employed by the gun makers.
It’ll be interesting to see if the U.S. Justice Department weighs in. It might not make any difference in the outcome, but it would send a good signal to Mexico City.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.