Mexico and the U.S.: from romance to realism

DENISE DRESSER, a professor at the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico, is a contributing editor to Opinion.

WATCHING President Bush wax poetic about U.S. relations with its neighbor to the south, you can’t help but feel deja vu all over again.

We’ve heard this romantic tale before. It began when Bush declared at the beginning of his first term that he was truly, madly, deeply committed to a prosperous, free and democratic Western Hemisphere. It reached its pinnacle when he and former Mexican President Vicente Fox spent a year whispering sweet nothings in each other’s ear.

But it began to sour after 9/11 and ended in tears when the U.S. announced its intention last year to build a wall on the border. Since then, tepid relations have been punctuated by spurts of security-driven and crisis-centered attention, accompanied by benign neglect. Bush’s quick stopover in Mexico this week is a belated effort to renew a relationship gone sour.

He arrives at a time when grievances toward the U.S. are high and trust is in short supply. The warm, fuzzy noises that were heard when Bush called Mexico a “best friend” during his first year in office have been replaced by old furies. Constructive engagement has been replaced by silence or, worse yet, policy-by-snit. It’s no wonder the two countries are disappointed in each other.

In Mexico today, many sectors share the perception that Fox’s efforts — however clumsy — to promote an immigration agreement with the United States were shunned by an unreliable neighbor to the north. Fox raised expectations in Mexico about a grand immigration accord that was not to be. As a result, many Mexicans are wondering whether there truly is a reward to be gained in closer ties with the U.S., and why Bush is bothering to show up at all.

In light of Mexican ambivalence, it’s understandable that Felipe Calderon’s new presidency is shifting gears and rethinking how to better manage U.S.-Mexico relations. Calderon is not going to bet on Bush’s goodwill or ask him for any favors. He’s not going to make any big promises to the people of Mexico that he can’t keep. He’s not going to obsess over a grand immigration accord, but rather work behind the scenes on behalf of modest immigration reform.

Arturo Sarukhan — Calderon’s recently appointed ambassador to Washington — argued in his confirmation hearing that U.S.-Mexico relations need to be “de-migratized.” “The solution to the immigration problem needs to be based on a broader development strategy that includes job creation, foreign investment and the reduction of the wage gap between Mexico and the United States,” he said. “For that to occur, Mexico will have to grow at a faster rate, and that will only happen if obstacles to growth are removed in Mexico.”

This position is a healthy one because it entails a recognition that in order to engage the U.S. constructively, Mexico has to reform domestically. Calderon understands that pushing for an immigration accord — although important — will not be enough to propel Mexico to where it needs to be. Instead of demanding that the U.S. give Mexico “the whole enchilada,” he is saying that Mexico needs to remodel its own kitchen with the hope that a variety of realistic, bilateral dishes can be served in it.

To a large extent, the future of U.S.-Mexico relations is going to be influenced by how much Calderon can accomplish at home. According to a Mexican saying, “Si le va bien al presidente le va bien al pais” (“If the president does well, the country does well”). The same could be applied to the bilateral relationship: If Calderon does well, U.S.-Mexico relations will be better than they have been of late. We’ve already seen that dynamic at work with the lavish praise heaped on Calderon by U.S. officials regarding his firm hand where drug trafficking is concerned.

So beyond Bush’s visit, the real question for the future of the bilateral relationship is how far Calderon will be willing to go in order to put Mexico’s own house in order. How firm will he be in taking on the vested interests — in the private and public sectors — to combat the key bottlenecks that constrain Mexican economic growth and the job creation that Mexico needs to keep its people from crossing the border. This means reform in key areas: energy, financial services, telecommunications, transportation, infrastructure and education. Action on these fronts would give Calderon the necessary political capital to reengage the United States from a more pragmatic perspective and defend the gains of the North American Free Trade Agreement, while broadening the circle of winners it has produced. If Calderon shows he is capable of cleaning up Mexico’s act, the U.S. Congress might be more wiling to undertake the kind of immigration reform Mexico wants.

President Clinton once said that the best foreign policy is a good domestic policy, and Calderon seems to believe this is the case. Now he has to provide concrete evidence to his own constituents that closer ties to the U.S., and the market-led model of development that he believes in, actually work. That Mexico’s efforts to become a modern, North American country are not just another mirage, not just another chapter in a long history of difficult engagement with the United States, not just another “little romance” in which, according to D.H. Lawrence, “you have everything as you like it, where rain never wets your jacket and gnats never bite your nose.”

So, as part of Calderon’s shift from romance to realism, Bush will be welcomed in Mexico, but he shouldn’t expect hugs and kisses.