“As new Mexican president takes office, experts foresee rocky road in relations with United States” So read a recent headline in the Houston Chronicle. Should we be worried? One of the last acts of the outgoing Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, suggests otherwise. In addition to signing to the United States Mexico Canada Agreement, he awarded White House senior adviser Jared Kushner the Order of the Aztec Eagle, which is the highest distinction Mexico grants to a foreign citizen.
From heads of state to royal members to diplomatic leaders, Mexico traditionally honors select foreign nationals for their contributions to bilateral relations. Its recognition of Kushner is a testament to his critical role in shaping outreach over the last two years that culminated in the United States Mexico Canada Agreement. When the three parties found much to disagree on, all sides acknowledged that Kushner was pivotal in forging strong and trusted relationships to salvage the agreement.
More broadly, it also demonstrates that despite some forecasts, bilateral relations will remain on solid ground. A population dissatisfied with the political status quo elected President López Obrador. There seems to be a misperception in the United States that Mexico elected a leftist leader to spite the Trump administration. That facts do not bear that out. Rather, major domestic problems such as corruption and a rapid deterioration in security drove voters to the polls. The United States was not a factor.
President Obrador is inheriting a Mexico with historically high homicide rates, a booming drug trade, and entrenched transnational criminal organizations. Uneven economic growth and associated challenges have left nearly half the population in poverty. On the southern border of Mexico, the northern triangle countries of Central America are in a dire crisis, as evidenced by the outflows of thousands of fleeing migrants.
With renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement off the table, both countries can focus on addressing these shared challenges. All signs point to a continuation and in many areas, a deepening, of relations. Caravans as a means of illegal immigration to the United States present a challenge not only to the United States but also to the source countries in Central America and transit regions within Mexico. The United States and Mexico are reportedly seeking creative solutions to deal with Central American migrants while their asylum claims are processed.
The rumored agreements could represent a major paradigm shift for the United States. In the foreign policy realm, it demonstrates the health of the bilateral relationship. Without sufficient goodwill and trust on both sides, broadening cooperation on sensitive issues such as migration would be impossible. In exchange, the United States should expect and be willing to provide financial assistance to the Obrador administration.
This lends itself to deepening cooperation on other areas of mutual interest such as stemming the opioid crisis, combating transnational criminal organizations, and encouraging economic development in Central America. In the domestic policy arena, maintaining migrants in Mexico alleviates the burden from the backlogged American immigration system and reduces the incentive for illegal immigration. Should the deal hold, it would be a political achievement for the Trump administration.
It would seem that President Trump and his new counterpart in Mexico would butt heads, yet there is no shortage of encouraging statements from both sides of the border. During the transition, both leaders sent each other letters and high level emissaries. We can surely expect some differences on approaches to solving difficult issues, but the imperatives to work together outweigh the ideological differences. Kushner clearly understood that aspect of the bilateral relationship for the past two years. He worked those differences assiduously with the objective of closing on a renegotiated free trade deal. Now the focus shifts to having it ratified.
We should expect to see renewed efforts towards Mexico in the near future. While a nomination for the ambassadorship to Mexico is pending, the Senate recently confirmed career Mexico expert Kimberly Breier as assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs. Alongside Kushner, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, the United States policy bench for Mexico is strong. The road seems rather smooth, not rocky, for North American cooperation.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 12/14/18