Mexican President Vicente Fox is behaving like a man who doesn't understand his mission. Some days he prays for peace, and some days he argues that only the total disarmament of Iraq will ensure it. Some days he appears to be on the verge of supporting a resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, and some days it seems as though he will never do so.
While the president meanders, Mexico may end up lost in a labyrinth of its own making: inevitably casting a vote with the United States, but without receiving any compensation abroad or any support at home for its collaboration. Fox's stance is unsustainable and costly. Mexico needs to define, bargain for and explain its position on the basis of concrete interests, not puerile pacifism.
By praying for a peaceful solution that is unlikely to emerge, Fox is squandering an opportunity to broker a good deal for his country.
He should not be urging the Mexican public to side with peace when Mexico may end up siding with war. Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez should not have said it would be "undignified" to negotiate an immigration accord in exchange for Mexico's U.N. Security Council vote when that is precisely what the government should have in mind.
Fox would like to stand by Mexico's historical principles of nonintervention and self-determination that, in the past, led Mexico to oppose U.S. meddling in Central America and Cuba. But Fox doesn't seem to understand what's at stake.
President Bush has said loud and clear: Neutrality will be interpreted as hostility, and those countries that don't vote with the United States on Iraq will pay a steep price. The peaceful disarmament of Iraq -- which Fox hopes for -- probably will not happen. Fox will be forced to rethink Mexico's principles because they were coined before North American integration, when the border had not begun to erode as goods and millions of people cross it. Today, his diplomatic detachment from the United States doesn't correspond to Mexico's commercial connections and new realities.
Because it chose to institutionalize interdependence through free trade, Mexico is no longer a distant neighbor of the United States. Mexico cannot antagonize its main trading partner, its main source of foreign investment, its main buyer of oil. It put all its eggs in one basket and now can't proceed to kick the basket's owners.
Mexico's vote on the Security Council should not be cast in relation to the reprisals it wants to avoid or the principles it wants to preserve. It should vote on the basis of what it wants out of the bilateral relationship. This would mean negotiating a deal -- on agricultural subsidies or immigrants or trucks or whatever -- with the United States.
Other countries, including most notably Turkey, are learning to charge for their support, and Mexico should do the same.
However distasteful it may seem to a political class for whom bartering is viewed as betrayal, that's how the diplomatic game is played. In the end, the interdependence of the two nations means Mexico will have little choice but to support the United States, so at the very least it should get something for doing so.
Fox needs to tell the Bush administration that if Washington wants Mexico's vote, the time has come to bid for it: support in the U.N. Security Council for support on the bilateral agenda; domestic political costs compensated with diplomatic achievements. Fox must argue that if the U.S. wants Mexico to act as a junior partner in a maturing relationship, it should be treated as such. Mexico expects more than Bush's exasperated calls to his Mexican counterpart, threatening to bring any progress on the immigration issue to a halt. In order to move from Mexico's stance in favor of peace to a vote authorizing war, however, Fox will have to display the leadership skills that have eluded him so far. Where Mexican public opinion is concerned, Fox will have to emphasize what Mexico has gained and not what it has given up. Where relations with the U.S. are concerned, the Mexican president will have to horse-trade.
Otherwise Mexico will end up in the worst of all worlds: too close to the United States, with nothing to show for it.