Webcast Recap

The United States and Mexico could benefit from thinking more strategically about their relationship with each other, agreed panelists in the February 6 launch of the Wilson Center's new policy report, The United States and Mexico: Towards a Strategic Partnership. The report argues that the effective resolution of the common challenges facing both countries stands on greater collaboration, cooperation, and dialogue. The report's conclusions, generated from a series of interdisciplinary Working Group meetings held in fall 2008, offers sets of unilateral and bilateral policy considerations aimed at mitigating organized crime violence, updating the trade relationship amid continuing globalization, finding common ground on migration, and establishing effective mechanisms to jointly manage the borderlands.

The report and the working groups, explained Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute, at the report launch, were fundamentally guided by a desire to identify ways for Mexico and the United States to more effectively coordinate bilateral and unilateral efforts in ways that sustainably benefit the two nations and that strengthen the binational relationship. While the binational relationship per se may not absorb the agenda of the Obama administration, he added, the relationship's individual components – security cooperation, immigration, economic integration, and border management – may strongly shape the U.S. domestic policy agenda.

Arturo Sarukhan, Ambassador of Mexico to the United States, lauded the report as an effective blueprint for the construction of a strategic partnership between the two countries. He noted that the report suggests a new paradigm for the relationship, providing a strategic focus that had been missing since the consensus that enabled the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993. This report "dares to be bold, to suggest what is feasible," the Mexican ambassador said, congratulating the report authors on blending both bilateral and unilateral policy considerations.

Lázaro Cárdenas Batel, former governor of Michoacán and Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center until May 2009, emphasized the interdependence between Mexico and the United States and praised the report for suggesting the benefits to be gained from an enhanced, deeper, and more strategic relationship between the two countries. At the same time, he noted that obstacles exist to the forging of this relationship, particularly the persistence of misperceptions and suspicions in the two countries. Whereas some in the United States counterproductively view Mexico as a "failed state" or categorically as a source of threats and problems, many in Mexico view the United States similarly. They see the United States negatively as the source of the drug demand that sustains organized crime in Mexico. On this note, the former governor of Michoacán state stressed that abating the harm of drug trafficking is only possible within the workings of a sturdy binational partnership. Yet Cárdenas also acknowledged that Mexico needs to consolidate its institutions and work to close the internal development gulf, particularly between northern and southern Mexico, as well as work with the United States to create a development agenda between the countries.

The Institute of the Americas's president, Jeffrey Davidow, lauded the report as "full of commonsensical, realistic suggestions," focused on the "doable." He diagnosed the current state of the U.S.-Mexico relationship as "stuck in the mud" with many of its component parts suffering in dysfunction. Yet he acknowledged that the 2008 Mérida Initiative, a binational partnership to fight drug violence and enhance the rule of law in Mexico, represents an important exception. Davidow said that the U.S.-Mexico relationship is "broken" in its most critical areas: NAFTA is providing diminishing returns financially, the North American Development Bank is "moribund and ineffective," and the U.S. immigration system is dysfunctional. The border, the site for the movement of massive amounts of goods and people, is also mismanaged.

Denise Dresser, professor at the Instituto Tecnólogico Autónomo de México (ITAM) and columnist for Reforma and Proceso, remarked on the report's value in offering the paradigm of a "strategic" partnership over a "tactical" arrangement. Yet she added that there exists a need "for a sober assessment" of the Mexican situation. Though the recent characterization of Mexico as a "failed state" is unfair, it must be recognized that Mexico has a "weak state," she said. She characterized the drug trafficking violence affecting parts of Mexico as "staggering," and said that such violence is symptomatic of a government incapable of fulfilling its basic responsibility to protect its people. Of the four critical areas identified by the report, Dresser emphasized the need for expanded security cooperation in the short term, especially to slow the flow of illicit arms, abate money laundering, and encourage collaboration between law enforcement agencies in both countries. She noted that effectively addressing the Mexican security situation was a sine qua non for successful efforts in the other policy areas of migration, economic integration, and joint borderlands management.

Mexico resides in a kind of "purgatory," added Andres Martínez, director of the Fellows Program at the New America Foundation and former editorial page editor, The Los Angeles Times. Paradoxically it is too rich to be a top priority for U.S. development agencies, yet it is too poor to be ignored, especially given its proximity to the United States, its long border, and the fact that migration levels are a consequence of development failures. Martínez praised the report for its in-depth analysis of the migration debate and expressed frustration that this debate fails to take into account "Mexican exceptionalism," or Mexico's special place among immigrant-sending nations to the United States, which should be reflected in visa quotas or a special status for Mexican migrants.

The panel was moderated by Ginger Thompson, national correspondent and former bureau chief, The New York Times.