As it had done for hundreds of years, the relationship between Mexico and the United States has produced yet another martyr. Mexico's recently fired representative on the United Nations Security Council, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, can add his name to the long list of those who have wrapped themselves in the flag and tossed themselves off a cliff in order to defend Mexico's honor in the face of American aggression. Too bad that his sacrifice was unnecessary and counterproductive for the country he represents.
Aguilar Zinser is the victim of an original sin. Throughout his tenure on the Security Council, he displayed a long-held and deeply felt anti-American stance typical of Mexico's nationalistic elites. Precisely because of it, he never should have been sent there in the first place.
President Vicente Fox made a mistake by selecting someone who wanted to trip Americans at every turn, while his government was trying to negotiate an immigration accord with them. As a result, for two years Mexico's ambassador to the United Nations behaved as a freelancer who frequently marched in one direction as Mexico's foreign policy marched in another.
While Fox sought engagement between the two countries, Aguilar Zinser promoted distance between them. While Fox sought new understandings, Aguilar Zinser resurrected old grievances. While Fox stressed the importance of bilateral relations with the U.S., Aguilar Zinser made statements and wrote columns arguing that multilateralism was a better route, without the prior knowledge or approval of his boss.
All the qualities that had made Aguilar Zinser a formidable democratic activist in Mexico City -- honesty, combativeness, independence -- did not serve him well in New York.
Aguilar Zinser is also a victim of Fox's lack of clarity regarding relations with the United States. The terms of Aguilar Zinser's departure reveal that Mexico simply doesn't know what sort of relationship it wants or what sort of foreign policy it needs vis-a-vis the United States.
Fox fired his friend and ally for assuming the same anti-American positions that he himself had voiced after 9/11 and during the war in Iraq. In other words, Fox declared himself offended by anti-American criticisms that were a mirror image of those he had, at times, adopted for domestic political consumption. Aguilar Zinser has become a scapegoat for a president who changes his views on and policies toward the United States as frequently as he changes his socks.
This is the heart of the matter and what runs the risk of being forgotten amid the scandal and the mutual recriminations. What is really at stake today is not Aguilar Zinser's honor or Fox's incoherence. What Mexico needs to debate now is its role in the world and its relationship with the United States.
Should Mexico behave as a wounded civilization and fight the U.S. at every turn, as Aguilar Zinser has suggested? Or should it leave its pride and prejudices behind while pursuing concrete bilateral interests? If Mexico abandons the pugnacious, combative diplomacy that Aguilar Zinser believes in, does it mean that subservience to the United States is the only other choice? No one in Mexico seems to have an answer for this essential, defining question.
Aguilar Zinser lost his job for suggesting that the United States always treated Mexico as a backyard. Well, the United States treats most of the world as its backyard, and Mexico is no exception. The challenge for Mexico is how to spruce up the backyard and learn to deal with the neighbors. Aguilar Zinser suggests that there are only two routes: to be an honorable anti-American or to be a dishonorable pro-Yankee, to throw stones from the backyard or live humiliated in it.
But there are alternatives, and perhaps the fight between Fox and Aguilar Zinser will help map them out. Mexico should be less histrionic and more strategic in its relations with the U.S. Mexico should spend time figuring out how to improve the lives of the people who live there. One way would be to negotiate an immigration accord that would address the needs of those who climb over the fence and those who have a job waiting for them on the other side.
The Mexican "backyard" needs reforms and remodeling, and fewer politicians who fight among themselves and more who fight for what needs to be done.
With his ungraceful exit, Aguilar Zinser is creating a false dichotomy. Mexico doesn't need street-fighting diplomacy or kowtowing diplomacy. It needs intelligent diplomacy.