On January 12, 2009, President-elect Barack Obama will meet his
Mexican counterpart President Felipe Calderon in Washington. Such
an early encounter between neighboring heads of state has become a
diplomatic tradition, emblematic of the importance of the
relationship. Ties between the U.S. and Mexico remain vitally
important in good times and even more so in bad.
Today the U.S. and Mexico are joint stakeholders in complex and
challenging issues that range from an intense trade and investment
relationship to concerns over energy, migration, and illicit drugs.
The meeting of presidents must set a tone for a constructive
relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. It also offers an
opportunity for Obama to demonstrate readiness to build on the
substantial accomplishments of the Bush Administration.
Once dominated by a single party, Mexico's political system is
now highly competitive, with three major parties routinely vying
for national leadership. Elected in 2006 by the thinnest of
margins, Calderon has attempted to strengthen governing
institutions while introducing much-needed fiscal, electoral, and
energy reforms. Calderon has demonstrated considerable leadership
skills and macroeconomic maturity and has maintained a friendly
posture toward the U.S. He has also avoided populist, anti-American
diatribes that have become the hallmark of Latin American leaders
like Venezuela's Hugo Chávez.
Monday's meeting between Obama and Calderon occurs at a time
when Mexico, like the U.S., is facing substantial economic and
social challenges stemming from the current global financial
crisis. Mexico's economic growth and development rely heavily on
oil revenues and sales to the U.S. market, which receives as much
as 82 percent of Mexico's exports. Mexican economic growth will
likely fall toward zero this year, and Mexican unemployment is
Calderon has offered a moderate but responsible package of
economic measures aimed at restraining energy price increases while
offering modest stimulants that target the most vulnerable members
of Mexican society. Reducing poverty and creating jobs sit high on
Obama needs to reassure his Mexican counterpart that he does not
intend to alter the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in
order to satisfy the demands of organized labor. Additionally,
Obama should convey to Calderon that he will not punish American
consumers by seeking to establish barriers of protection against
trade with Mexico. Both presidents need to find ways to maximize
private sector growth, entrepreneurship, and job creation.
Battling the Cartels
Soon after taking office, Calderon moved to break up and disband
Mexico's powerful drug cartels. The crackdown unleashed a bloody
wave of violence that has claimed thousands of lives. Calderon is
using the army, overhauling the police, and carrying out legal
reforms to win the battle. The drug cartels are fighting back with
relentless terrorism and corrosive corruption. Worried observers
fear Mexico may descend into disorder and state failure if the drug
cartels blunt the government's offensive and the drug fight loses
popular Mexican support. This is a contingency neither the U.S. nor
Mexico can allow to occur.
Passed in June 2008, the landmark Merida Initiative provides a
new, cooperative U.S.-Mexico paradigm for combating the drug
cartels. With the Merida Initiative, the U.S. committed to
providing equipment, training, and technology to upgrade Mexico's
law enforcement capabilities. Already as much as $300 million of
the approximately $1.5 billion program has been delivered. The
Merida Initiative process needs to continue and will likely require
strengthening. The border situation with Mexico, as well as
Mexico's internal stability, may be as critical to U.S national
security as more distant threats in Iraq and Pakistan.
Obama and Calderon cannot dance around issues related to
controlling the U.S-Mexican border. Although both the unlawful
population in the United States and the number of attempted illegal
border crossings are on the decline, immigration reform in the U.S.
remains long overdue. Successful programs--from building border
obstacles to enforcing immigration laws and strengthening the
surety of identity credentials like driver's licenses--need to
continue. For Obama to stop now would roll back progress.
Mexico's voice on hemispheric and international issues is an
important one. Working with his Mexican counterpart, Obama can
explore areas for diplomatic cooperation and encourage Mexico to
abandon its often neutral, non-interventionist stance in order to
speak out on issues of democratic governance in the Western
Hemisphere. He can also encourage Calderon to join with other
market-friendly governments in the Americas to promote growth and
In 2005, the Bush Administration launched the Security and
Prosperity Partnership (SPP) with Mexico and Canada. The SPP was
designed to coordinate a range of policies and regulatory controls
that ensure efficiency, reliability, and safety across borders.
Obama should indicate that the U.S. will continue to support such
vital objectives, but he also needs to reassure citizens of the
U.S. that the SPP is not and will not become a stalking horse for a
larger North American Union. Indeed, the SPP process requires
adequate congressional oversight, complete transparency, and a
robust mechanism for receiving citizen input and participation.
In his initial meeting with Calderon, Obama should:
- Recognize that Mexico's economic health is critical to the U.S.
He should reaffirm a commitment to NAFTA, urge Calderon to continue
efforts to reform Mexico's economy by breaking up monopolies and
other oligopolies, and look for ways to assist with the
agricultural and commercial development of rural and southern
- Offer strong support for a robust, cooperative counter-drug
campaign while urging Mexico to undertake all necessary
institutional and legal reforms necessary to such a campaign. Obama
should pledge a renewed commitment to reducing the flow of
illegally trafficked guns, bulk cash, and precursor chemicals from
the U.S. into Mexico. Together, the U.S. and Mexico should reach
out to Colombia and Central America to strengthen international
cooperation critical to bursting the narcotics balloon.
- Recognize that anyone--Mexican or otherwise--who enters,
remains in, and works in the United States illegally is in ongoing
and extensive violation of U.S. law. This has a corrosive effect on
civil society and undermines confidence in the immigration process
and the rule-of-law principles that govern our nation.
Consequently, Obama should commit to a balanced and
well-constructed temporary worker program that diminishes
incentives for illegal immigration.
- Demonstrate that a change in Administrations will not lessen
the U.S. commitment to building better border security. Obama
should enlist the Mexican government as a stakeholder and
responsible partner in a comprehensive strategy for controlling the
border against all forms of illicit activity, from illegal
migration to drugs and terrorism.
- Make clear that while the U.S. seeks neither union nor
political integration in North America it wishes to advance a
shared, vibrant, and productive relationship of commerce,
investment, and properly regulated movements of people between
- Invite Mexico to work with the U.S. in the Americas to advance
democratic governance, open trade, and social development.
An Important Opportunity
The January 12 meeting of two North American leaders initiates
an exploratory discussion that over the next four years will become
intense, frequent, and vital for both parties. In the first
encounter, neither party should raise expectations unduly.
Nevertheless, Obama has an opportunity to set a tone for relations
with Mexico that recognizes our nations' substantial differences
and separation points but lays out a policy course for constructive
action on security, trade, migration, and other pressing
Ray Walser, Ph.D. is a Senior
Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison
Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and
Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The