With high-profile meetings between the respective presidents and several cabinet officials, a shared challenge of organized crime, the outbreak of the borderless H1-N1 virus, and an economic crisis across the region, panelists agreed that this has been a time of intense activity for the U.S.-Mexico relationship. The scholars, policy makers, and businessmen from both countries debated the extent of continuity and change in the relationship, but all agreed on the importance of the future of this key partnership.

Where is the U.S.-Mexico Relationship Today?

Arturo Sarukhan, Ambassador of Mexico, commented on the improvements in the relationship, drawing on examples such as the successful joint response to the H1N1 virus and continued cooperation to combat drug trafficking. He described the strengthened relationship as a logical sequential process stemming from Calderón's initiatives to confront "thugs and drugs" on the border. From this, the United States has invested political capital in the bilateral relationship, which is a clear example of institution building, strong cooperation, and dialogue.

José Antonio Fernández, Chair and CEO of FEMSA, was about the relationship. He suggested that bilateral collaboration in three key sectors would improve the partnership: alternative energy, health, and education. Fernández argued that we will only see improvements in these sectors if the United States and Mexico work together toward a collective goal.

The U.S. government, suggested Roger Wallace, Vice President of Pioneer Natural Resources, has been overly focused on threats that are far away, such as North Korea, and urged the new administration to nurture the crucial U.S- Mexico relationship. He argued that it is the single most important relationship for both countries. Wallace added that a primary bilateral goal should be the development of high-quality infrastructure.

Has the U.S.-Mexico Relationship Changed Qualitatively?

Phil Bennett, former Managing Editor of the Washington Post, started the discussion by asking about the types of changes that have occurred and if they were new or just cyclical trends. He encouraged the panelists to reflect on where the bilateral relationship is today by addressing the historical perspective and the differences between rhetoric and reality.

James Jones, former Ambassador to Mexico, noted that the current relationship is better than he has seen in his lifetime. He argued that each country now understands the other much better, which he anticipates will lead to a de facto borderless economy within the next twenty years. James also submitted that the development gap between the two countries could be achieved through a three-pronged approach: addressing issues of health, education, and infrastructure.

Nonetheless, former Deputy Secretary of Foreign Affairs Andrés Rozental stressed that the Obama and Calderón administrations have a lot of work ahead of them. He argued that the willingness of the United States to engage has not been fully met on the Mexican side because of the latter's primary concern with solving domestic issues.

Former Congressman Jim Kolbe disagreed, emphasizing that there has been a growing maturity in the relationship, as media, public officials, and members of congress on both sides of the border have addressed the issues with much greater balance and maturity. This is true, he argued, even for "hot button issues," such as immigration, which are being debated with greater maturity and balance.

However, Javier Treviño, Vice President of CEMEX, felt that little qualitative change has occurred as "the relationship is still drifting downstream, mainly following the current set by the previous administration," responded. He added that Obama has shown more continuity than change in his administration's relationship with Mexico.

María Echaveste, President of Nueva Vista, proposed that we examine the qualitative change question from a different perspective, perhaps that of the relationships between the peoples of each country rather than the political or economic ties. She explained how many families in both countries have close and profound cross-border relationships that can become problematic when so many U.S.-born people fear newcomers and immigrants.

Carlos Heredia, former Congressman, proposed that the two countries move from shared responsibility to shared strategy. He suggested that the two governments explore the big ticket issues rather than the "flavor of the day," and suggested that the single most important issue in this relationship is closing the development gap between the two countries.

While there was little consensus among the panelists, they all concluded that it has been an active period, and they hoped to see an in-depth discussion of issues at the North American Summit in Mexico in August.

What's Next?

Raúl Rodríguez Barocio, Chair of the North American Center for Transborder Studies, emphasized the many important recent and upcoming changes in both countries, including a new U.S. president, Mexico's mid-term legislative elections on July 5, 2009, and the presidential elections in 2012. He asked the panel to comment on where we are headed in the next three years and how the bilateral agendas and commitments will evolve against the many challenges on both sides.

There are underlying structural issues that are not being addressed by either side, argued Roderic Camp, Professor at Claremont McKenna College. The U.S. has no long-term foreign policy strategy, he suggested, but rather a "short-term and reactive" approach. He cautioned not to confuse the elite with the citizen perspectives in the bilateral relationship, as they often differ radically.

Diana Negroponte, Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, expressed excitement for the future with respect to two key issues. First, she considered the California-Texas corridor, which has significant private sector involvement, an area of great potential for strengthening this relationship. Second, she noted that the challenge of climate change represents an opportunity for coordination between the two countries to address environmental issues within the same geographic region and beyond.

Other panelists were less optimistic, including Susan Kaufman Purcell, Director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami, who questioned if the U.S. currently has a policy toward Mexico or Latin America in general. She also expressed concern about the growing role of the U.S. government in the economic sectors, while it has a growing disinterest in supporting global democracy.

Rossana Fuentes-Berain, Vice President of Grupo Editorial Expansión, anticipated binational convergence in the future, but she asserted that the lack of progress on structural reforms has affected Mexico's ability to advance a binational agenda effectively.

Luis de la Calle, Founding Partner of De la Calle, Madrazo, Mancera, S.C. (CMM), also discussed restructuring, particularly in the context of NAFTA, and observed that the current economic crisis presents a tremendous opportunity to reshape the nature of economic integration. Restructuring, he argued, could help Mexico to invest in its own stability and might include the opportunity for Mexico and the United States to work together to produce finished goods for export, especially to China.

Peter Smith, Professor of Latin American Studies at UCSD, tackled the popular topic of the drug war and contended that it was actually a "governability war." It is impossible to end drug trafficking as long as there is consumption, he noted; therefore, the current efforts to deal with drug trafficking are primarily about containing the threat that organized crime can pose to democracy. Smith proposed reforms that would treat, educate, and rehabilitate drug users in order to reduce the demand for illegal drugs.