Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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It’s time for Mexico to take the lead, from Mexico’s The News

by Shannon K. O'Neil
December 1, 2008

It’s hard to believe that Calderon is coming up for 2 years in office, one-third of his term. Much has been said of Calderon’s domestic agenda, but in the op-ed below, published in Mexico’s major English-language newspaper, The News, I analyze his foreign policy achievements. I argue that President Calderon has done much to restore Mexico’s bilateral relationships, but that so far his administration has failed to take on a global leadership role. With four more years in office, Calderon should shift Mexico’s foreign policy course to actively shape the international agenda.

It’s time for Mexico to lead

BY Shannon O’Neil

Special to The News

November 28, 2008

As he celebrates his two-year anniversary in office, President Felipe Calderón gets mixed reviews on his domestic and foreign policy. Many point to the numerous successful reforms – pension, tax, justice, and energy – that have passed as evidence he can deftly guide serious issues through a divided Congress. These achievements do stand in stark contrast to the gridlocked Vicente Fox administration. Yet others dismiss these reforms as too little, too late, and lament the wasted potential for real change.

This ambivalence is not limited to national politics. While much lower in profile, Calderón´s foreign policy elicits both praise and dismissals. It shines in comparison to Fox´s, which left Mexico’s relations with Venezuela and Cuba in tatters and U.S. relations weakened by recriminations on both sides. But as in the domestic arena, many worry Calderón is wasting the opportunity to fundamentally transform Mexico’s role on the world stage.

Upon entering Los Pinos, Calderón quickly moved to repair broken bilateral fences. In his first year, he returned Mexican ambassadors to both Venezuela and Cuba, taking the first necessary steps to re-engage with all of Latin America. He followed up with visits to Argentina and Chile, and received Presidents Tabaré Vázquez of Uruguay and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil at home. Through these renewed ties, his government pushed to increase trade and to further energy partnerships – all important for Mexico´s future. This new hemispheric camaraderie permitted Mexico´s successful U.N. Security Council seat bid, providing Calderón a new international platform in 2009.

While at times seeming almost desperate to ignore his northern neighbor – during his first trip there as head of state in April he even bypassed Washington – Calderón’s administration has actually made more concrete headway with the United States than many of his predecessors. The harsh realities of his “get tough” domestic agenda, and the increasing worries of U.S. policy-makers about drug-related violence in Mexico, have facilitated this newfound cooperation.

Negotiations with President George W. Bush culminated in the three-year package known as the Mérida Initiative, which provides $400 million in the first year for the fight against the drug cartels. Just as important, these discussions changed the terms of the drug war debate, getting the United States to at least grudgingly accept some responsibility in the violence and to promise to stem the flow of illegal guns and money into Mexico.

QUIET CONFIDENCE

On other bilateral issues, Calderón has been notably silent. Coming on Fox’s burned heels, he has virtually ignored U.S.-bound migration in his discussions with the U.S. president. Calls for better treatment of Mexico’s citizens abroad, and for economic development and job creation at home to stem the steady human flow outward, have been geared almost exclusively to his domestic audience. On NAFTA, too, the administration has been uncommonly reticent, particularly amid calls by U.S. democrats for its renegotiation.

Two years in, Calderón’s foreign policy has promoted better Latin American relations, and assuaged past rifts with the United States. Not bad – but not visionary. As the 13th-largest economy in the world, and according to The Economist, soon to break into the ranks of the top 10, Mexico has been decidedly quiet on the international front. It is time for Mexico to lead.

The current financial crisis provides an unprecedented opportunity. Given its own tortuous history with financial upheaval (and more than one near-death experience of its banking sector), Mexico has quite a lot of wisdom to share. And since the exclusive G-7 has given way to the G-20 in worldwide negotiations, Mexico now has a seat at the table.

Other countries understand this. Brazil is the most obvious example, and one to be emulated rather than envied. Its steady and confident leadership on the world stage (backed by good macroeconomic policies and solid domestic economic growth), seduces not just international businesses and investors, but also worldwide diplomats. Having the world’s ear, Brazil´s eminence has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In contrast, Mexico´s more timid foreign policy stance leaves it out of the game.

In the coming months, we will likely see a narrowing of the Mexican government’s domestic policy agenda. The unfortunate combination of escalating criminal violence, the almost certain National Action Party losses in next year´s midterm elections, and the deepening of the global financial crisis will prove too much for an ambitious reform program in the second half of the president´s term. But this unlucky trifecta for the home front opens the opportunity for a more aggressive foreign policy approach. Mexico should turn outward in earnest, building on the solid blocks of support developed so far by Mexico´s diplomats. With now two years of distance from Fox´s unfortunate travails, the arrival of a new administration in Washington provides an opening for the Calderón government to shift Mexico´s foreign policy course. Through the U.N. Security Council seat, its OECD and G-20 membership, and its intricate economic, security, social, and cultural ties with what is still the most powerful world economy and government, Mexico has a chance to shape the international agenda. It is an opportunity Calderón should not waste.

About the writer: Shannon O’Neil is Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

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