Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador stands with Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro as two of the last world leaders to recognize Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump. When Biden takes office in 2021 he will face an uncertain and potentially fraught relationship with Mexico’s controversial leader. Biden may have defeated Trump, but he will spend the next four years navigating a bilateral relationship with a president who embraces the playbook of authoritarian populism. Observers both inside and outside Mexico have noted Lopez Obrador’s tendencies to denigrate technocrats and experts, undermine independent institutions, insult and discredit the media, and constantly fight to consolidate political power rather than using his time in office to meaningfully engage in policy reform. Mexico’s Lopez Obrador brands himself as the leader of a new chapter in Mexico’s history. But, his discourse is so expansive it is not easy to delineate his ambitions for the next four years. While he disparages the NAFTA era, Lopez Obrador has also worked to protect Mexico’s trading relationship with the U.S. and Canada. In the two years following his landslide victory in 2018, he has supported the new USMCA trade deal and claims he wants to attract additional investment, create jobs, and catalyze economic growth in Mexico. But, private sector leaders both within Mexico and abroad worry about Mexico’s president’s authoritarian-sounding rhetoric and wonder whether he has simply embraced a controversial but effective rhetorical style or if his conflictive populist vision will include efforts to undermine Mexico’s democracy or seriously disrupt Mexico’s economy.

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When it comes to rhetoric and policy ideas, Biden and Lopez Obrador aren’t always going to agree. Biden is positioning himself as a return to normalcy after the aberration of the Trump years. Lopez Obrador considers himself to be a transcendent shift away from Mexico’s “neoliberal” past. Biden faces a difficult task of trying to govern a divided country. Lopez Obrador seems intent on continuing to embrace a divisive, hyper-partisan style of governance.

It’s not clear what Biden should glean from the working relationship Lopez Obrador developed with Trump. Some critics from the Democratic party in the U.S. have complained that Lopez Obrador’s refusal to acknowledge Biden’s victory gives credence to Trump’s widely condemned efforts to delegitimize the 2020 election. But, despite Trump’s frequent hostility both towards Mexico and Mexicans, Lopez Obrador developed a functional relationship with Trump that at times bordered on friendship and mutual admiration. Both Trump and Lopez Obrador share a love for campaign rallies, combative rhetoric, backward-looking nationalism, and a disdain for the details of policymaking.

The end of the Trump era marks an opportunity to renew and rebuild the U.S.-Mexico relationship. Trump started his campaign by promising Mexico would pay to build a wall on the border. He’s ending his last few weeks in office blasting through pristine desert terrain on the border, trying to finish a few extra miles of wall. Joe Biden will have the chance to create a new agenda for US-Mexico relations. He’ll need to engage with Lopez Obrador to discuss issues including cross-border trade, Central American migration, Covid-19, organized crime, energy investment, and climate change. It’s still unclear what this process will look like. Biden needs to understand that Lopez Obrador is a masterful orator who continues to narrate the story of his own presidency. He has spent his first two years in office insulting his “conservative” adversaries, implementing austerity measures, developing new cash transfer programs designed to foster voter loyalty, lambasting feminists, promoting traditional family values, creating obstacles for renewable energy investment and supporting expanded production and use of coal and oil. While he has clear ideological inclinations towards populism and nationalism, he lacks a coherent policy vision. At times, he can be divisive and militantly partisan and on other occasions he can be a pragmatic deal-maker. We still don’t know exactly what type of relationship Biden can expect with Mexico’s president. To discuss the outlook for US-Mexico relations in 2021 and beyond, I reached out to Eric Farnsworth, the vice-president of the Council of the Americas, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Nathaniel Parish Flannery: Are there any policy areas where Lopez Obrador and Biden will find easy opportunities for cross-border cooperation?

Eric Farnsworth: Well, I don’t think President-elect Biden and President Lopez Obrador will agree on everything, to be sure, but there definitely are issues ripe for early attention. The most obvious near-term win is cooperation to defeat coronavirus, which neither country has yet adequately addressed. As vaccines become widely available, it will be critical for the North American economy that the United States and also our immediate neighbors quickly achieve high vaccination rates to kick-start economic re-opening, strengthen supply chains, and re-invigorate communities that depend on cross-border travel for economic development and growth. U.S. support for cost-effective vaccine availability throughout Mexico will also build confidence in and improve regional pandemic response, which proved effective during the SARS, H1N1, and Ebola crises but has been sorely tested by COVID-19, and will surely be tested again. Second, full and unwavering commitment to USMCA implementation both from Washington and Mexico City will build investor confidence and contribute to supply chain resiliency, a vital U.S. economic interest that was exposed by the pandemic as overly-reliant on China. Companies are now looking to diversify but there are many alternatives, both in Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean. Competition for investment is fierce, yet USMCA provides significant advantages for Mexico that can be amplified for mutual economic benefit. As well, given the shared 1,800-mile-long border and the potential for renewed migration pressures, it is in Washington’s interests, both in terms of security and economic growth, that Mexico’s economy flourish. USMCA is an important vehicle that can contribute to these mutually-beneficial results.     

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Parish Flannery: What will be the biggest potential flashpoints for conflict between Biden and Lopez Obrador?

Farnsworth: The perception that either nation is meddling in the other’s domestic affairs will cause backlash. For example, just as USMCA is a vital tool to build economic prosperity, it also contains a number of provisions that may prove to be controversial on both sides of the border. And, we can already foresee the Biden Administration prioritizing enforcing existing trade agreements as a precursor to, along with domestic economic recovery, a renewal of trade expansion efforts. To the extent that aggressive steps to enforce sensitive USMCA provisions, say, create an impression within Mexico of U.S. heavy-handedness, full implementation of the accords and even broader cooperation could be impacted. A balanced approach is required for these and other complicated issues, including migration. Another key topic to watch will be U.S. attacks on the health of Mexico’s democracy in the run-up to Mexico’s mid-term elections in July. Such attacks could quickly backfire after the United States’ own troubled 2020 elections process. At the same time, U.S. consumption of illegal narcotics as well as a growing and confusing patchwork of state-level restrictions on cannabis consumption provide ample opportunity for Mexico to throw shade at the United States, should it choose to do so, to say nothing of the North to South superhighway of high-powered weapons including .50 caliber rifles that have undermined Mexican security for years by arming the brutal cartels. We won’t always agree on everything, but will always be neighbors, and so we have to find a way to make the relationship work.     

Parish Flannery: Overall, what’s your expectation for the most likely scenario for the US-Mexico relationship over the next four years?  

Farnsworth: I think we’ll muddle through, as we usually do, because we have to. Mexico’s President Lopez Obrador has proven time and again that he seeks no quarrel with the United States, but that he will stand up for what he perceives to be Mexico’s core interests, including sovereignty and strict non-intervention and a larger economic development role for the state, particularly in energy.  He is also pursuing an aggressively independent path in foreign relations. In some respects, it’s a throwback to the pre-NAFTA days of the PRI, from which broke in 1989. The question is whether both nations will look for an opportunity to work toward a truly ambitious agenda, be it development in Southern Mexico, capturing new supply chains from China and building North American competitiveness, working toward global environmental sustainability, addressing the vexing issue of illegal narcotics and crime, or other priorities. We’ll be more likely to do so to the extent that we both legitimately seek to address those issues of most importance to the other, while developing a joint agenda for cooperation. To the extent hard conversations on migration, press freedoms, security, energy, Central America, Venezuela, and other topics need be had—and they will, because they always do—they should be conducted out of the headlines and off social media. That may be a challenge. Politics in Mexico are particularly charged right now, and will likely become more so as Mexico’s 2021 mid-term elections approach. The best thing that Washington including Congress can do in this environment is not to inflame passions further, even as Lopez Obrador levels accusations of malfeasance against his rivals, the press, and independent institutions and seeks to cement a transformative legacy beyond the end of his term. It will be a high wire act to conduct, requiring balance and nuance, with the future of bilateral relations on the line.

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