It has only been two weeks since Joseph R. Biden was inaugurated the 46th president of the United States. The differences in style between Biden and his predecessor are already obvious. And more substantially, there has already been a change in the tone of public discourse and, so far, a few executive actions linked to the U.S.-Mexico border and immigration — all vitally important to U.S. homeland security and closely related to Washington’s relationship with Mexico. Thus, after this shift, and especially after the stridency of the Trump administration, it is appropriate to ask: Did January 20, 2021 inaugurate a new chapter in the United States-Mexico relationship? Perhaps.
What is certain is that the relationship between Presidents Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Donald Trump has ended. And that leaves Mexico with the need to make its own adjustments. That will not be easy. During the two years that their presidencies coincided, López Obrador and Trump shared a personal, nationalist and authoritarian understanding of power — although not a friendship. In each other, they both found a kindred spirit. They were connected by their use of animosity as a political attitude, and of frontal attacks on institutions as a strategy. They polarized society as a tactic and exhibited contempt for the rule of law as a necessity. They undermined professional public administration as way of exercising authority and insulted the media and freedom of expression as a ploy. They showed a profound distaste for government checks and balances and, more circumstantially, poorly handled the pandemic and their respective economies.
All of that ends as a foundation for the binational relationship. And, again, it will be Mexico that will have to respond to changes in Washington. It is in this sense that there is room to ask: On what basis will the Mexico-United States relationship be (re)built?
The arrival to power of President Biden brings challenges for both countries. Biden is a traditional politician, but is also a centrist whose broad agenda will include changes to issues that pertain to both countries, including migration, security, and trade; he will likely seek to enforce the norms and agreements that bind both countries, such as those stated in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and the Mérida Initiative (which is still in place and viable). López Obrador’s awareness of this has shown in his initial moves; not all have been in a positive direction, as an emerging consensus holds that he dislikes the Biden administration’s fundamental approach to power, which López Obrador is likely to see as a counterweight to his own agenda.
The first move is puzzling and difficult to understand: a change of Mexico’s ambassador to the United States. López Obrador substituted a career diplomat for a politician. The recently replaced ambassador, Martha Bárcena, demonstrated extensive knowledge of foreign policy and good relationships in Washington — essential abilities when there is a change of administration that requires identifying and knowing the new representatives to create communication channels. Esteban Moctezuma, a politician who in different administrations has been a cabinet member, such as the Minister of Interior and Education, does not seem to have the diplomatic experience to manage the complex, multi-layered bilateral relationship.
López Obrador’s second move was to push through a new National Security Law, which strictly controls the activities of foreign agents in Mexican territory. This seems to be directly aimed at the United States, following in particular the U.S. arrest and subsequent release of a former minister of defense, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda – a situation that irked López Obrador because it had the potential to upset his close relationship with the military. The urgency and speed that accompanied the approval of the new law and related regulations show that López Obrador is paving the way to obstruct some of the Biden administration’s goals in Mexico. Or perhaps with this new law, he is seeking to build leverage for the tough negotiations that many already anticipate given Mexico’s growing non-compliance with the USMCA, especially in sectors such as energy and labor. This, of course, is baffling; López Obrador finds himself forced to comply with a treaty that he needs but probably dislikes because it is a symbol of the “neoliberal” order that he despises — but that gave him a resounding electoral victory in Mexico.
Third, López Obrador refused to recognize Biden’s victory a timely manner, expressed sympathy for Trump’s purported plight, and even defended him after he was banned from social media platforms. All are purely symbolic moves, but they have probably not gone unnoticed in the Biden administration. In time, they may be a harbinger of the interpersonal relationship we can expect between the two leaders.
Fourth, Biden has already appointed key people who will manage the bilateral relationship. For secretary of homeland security, he named Alejandro Mayorkas, who has definite views on border, immigration and security interests. In the National Security Council, he appointed Juan González to oversee Latin America. This has clear implications for how the U.S. views Mexico as a strategic partner. Roberta Jacobson will be the new “border czar.” She recognizes Mexico’s importance but also its weaknesses. All of these officials have extensive knowledge and experience, suggesting that politics toward the region will be firm and driven through institutional channels — and not through back-channel diplomacy and improvisations.
In the trade office, Biden nominated Katherine Tai, a lawyer who participated in the USMCA negotiations and who supervised its implementation and compliance. Mexico’s approach to Trump, even if correct in its time, is looking increasingly out of place in light of these appointments.
It is also possible that López Obrador is seeking to create a conflict with Washington and later sell himself at home as the great defender of national sovereignty vis-à-vis the U.S., perhaps to save his faltering administration. But this would be a dangerous game, one that Mexico cannot win.
Regardless, Washington has changed. And the relationship now calls for profound changes in Mexico’s approach, too. But López Obrador, like Trump, has not proven to be capable of radical change. If he cannot recalibrate his politics and diplomacy, he will further damage the binational relationship and the nearest serious improvement opportunity will not come until 2025. And who know what the world will look like by then.