Correction to This Article
A photo of President Obama with Mexican President Felipe Calderón, accompanying the op-ed piece carried a caption identifying Obama as president-elect in January 2008. The photo was taken in January 2009.

Time for a reset in U.S.-Mexican relations

Mexican President Felipe Calderón meets with then-president-elect Barack Obama in January 2008.
Mexican President Felipe Calderón meets with then-president-elect Barack Obama in January 2008. (Gerald Martineau/the Washington Post)
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By Jorge G. Castañeda
Monday, May 17, 2010

Mexican President Felipe Calderón will make his first full-fledged visit to Washington this week since taking office 3 1/2 years ago. Given the issues facing their countries, Calderón and President Obama might be tempted to nickel-and-dime their encounter. But the time is a ripe for a "big idea," not unlike what NAFTA -- warts and all -- was when it was proposed in 1990. Instead of narrowing everything down to drugs, security and how the United States can best back Mexico's war, the two countries should "de-narcoticize" their relationship and make their goal Mexico's development and transformation into a middle-class society.

Calderón has been battered by the effects of the international economic crisis at home (Mexico's economy shrank 6.5 percent last year); by 23,000 deaths in the drug war (257 deaths in early May constituted the highest weekly toll since 2007); by opposition intransigence to reforms and institutional gridlock; this past weekend, by the kidnapping and possible death of the most influential figure of his party for the past two decades; and by Arizona's new immigration law, which is seen in Mexico as anti-Mexican. With the 2012 Mexican presidential campaign already underway, Calderón, on his way to lame-duck status, would probably be content with raising a few specific issues (trucking, American gun-running into Mexico), obtaining a categorical restatement of U.S. support for Mexico's fight against organized crime and one more acknowledgement of U.S. responsibility for drug use.

Given his own domestic distractions and foreign policy priorities, Obama would probably also prefer to simply reaffirm that irreflexive or thoughtless or hasty commitment, repeat a few bromides about Mexico's importance to the United States and wish his visitor a safe journey home. It would be a mistake, however, to limit to drugs and platitudes the first official visit by a Mexican president to Washington since the eve of Sept. 11, 2001.

The presidents should place their difficult issues -- drugs and the border, Arizona and immigration, the fragility of economic recovery, climate change, nuclear proliferation (Mexico's U.N. Security Council vote on Iranian sanctions will be crucial), Cuba and Venezuela, to name a few -- in that context. Such challenges can be addressed only in a larger framework; otherwise, they will become intractable or collide with each other.

Consider the border. On paper, the two governments want freer flows of legal goods, services and people but much tighter control over illicit flows: people and drugs from south to north, guns, chemicals and "blood money" from north to south. But what about the reality of Arizona, where the Obama administration may have to send the National Guard and against which Mexico has issued a travel advisory? Pressure is also growing on Calderón to legalize marijuana if California does so in November. Can these contradictory points be dealt with one by one?

What about human rights? After decades of authoritarian rule and a justifiably poor image, Mexico began to put its house in order and to promote the defense of human rights abroad, breaking with its anti-interventionist past. But it faces justified criticism from nongovernmental organizations, the United Nations, the Inter-American legal community and the U.S. Senate for human rights violations committed by its security forces in a war on drugs partly financed -- and otherwise supported -- by the U.S. State Department.

Mexico should propose, and Obama should welcome, a new stage in bilateral relations whose purpose would be to build what NAFTA left out and to reduce the development gap -- in income, welfare, technology, security, rule of law, health and education -- between Mexico and its wealthier North American partners. The label is secondary to the substance: The concept must include immigration reform in the United States; energy reform in Mexico; security concerns in both countries but also convergence of standards and regulations; and legitimate security and border issues across the region, but addressed honestly. For instance, Arizona's crime rates have dropped since immigration from Mexico began to rise in the late 1990s. It should strive to coordinate policies so that crisis in one country -- say, swine flu in Mexico or Lehman Brothers in the United States -- affects the other only proportionately.

A prosperous, democratic and equitable Mexico is greatly in U.S. interests. If the United States is to rebuild its manufacturing base, it will need Mexico. If it is going to compensate for its aging population, enhance security and concentrate on real threats without worrying about its borders, it will need Mexico. If it hopes to establish different relationships with less affluent nations, by preaching through example and constructing one next door, it will need Mexico.

And Mexico needs the United States if it aspires to become a consolidated middle-class society, achieve needed economic growth, and provide security and the rule of law for citizens and visitors. All of this will not be achieved overnight, but it can be accomplished in less than a generation if we begin today. Calderón's meeting with Obama could be the "big idea" moment that starts us off.

Jorge G. Castañeda was foreign secretary of Mexico from 2000 to 2003 in the government of Vicente Fox. He teaches international relations at New York University and is a fellow at the New America Foundation.


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