King Canute of Denmark (990 A.D.) is famous for having positioned his throne on the beach surrounded by his entire entourage; seated near the waves, he commanded these to come to a halt, but ended up being drenched by them: Canute was ordering the waves to halt not because he thought they would but to prove to his obsequious courtiers that they would not. It was the ultimate demonstration of the limits of human power. This is how Mexicans should view the relationship with their neighbor to the North and, in general, with the rest of the world: the whole planet is changing and the elements that conferred certainty in past decades have eroded.
Beyond the pandemic, a glance at what is happening all over reveals patterns of behavior that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago. The most notable change, and more so for Mexico, is doubtlessly that which U.S. society has undergone in the form of President Trump. The country that was leading the world with an array of ideas and institutions relative to commerce, investment and international relations, the so-called “world order,” since the end of WWII, abdicated its leadership and is now the source of interminable conflicts and disturbances in the international arena.
Trump was not the product of chance. Like Brexit and other political happenings in the European ambit (Poland, Hungary, Italy, etc.), it reflects imbalances and the disillusionment of the citizens of their respective countries due to factors ranging from migration to the imbalances produced by globalization. For many years, the U.S. and China developed an outline of integration –which Niall Ferguson called “Chimerica”- which gave rise to strong malfunctions in industrial employment, wreaking havoc on the interior of U.S. society.
Many communities, typically in the Midwest, the heart of the industrial manufacturing belt since the XIX century, were dependent on a large company that dominated their work life –as occurred in industries like coal, steel and the automotive industry- were devastated when that employer decided to close down due to reasons as diverse as technological change, labor costs or environmental regulations. Persons who had devoted their lives to that company or activity suddenly found themselves without a job, with few skills or little capacity of adaptation to the “new” economy, the latter generally within the digital realm. While there is a proliferation of examples of successful adjustment (as in Rochester, New York, after the fall of Kodak), there is a vast number who were not successful, their populations ending up engulfed in alcohol and drugs. Trump did not invent that reality, he solely converted it into electoral might.
Many people await the day that Trump leaves the presidency and the world returns to normal. Unfortunately, although the stridency and the unpresidential manner of discourse and acting of a future administration could diminish, the structural factors that swept Trump into the presidency will continue to be there. Whether a government of the Right or the Left comes into power, the contentious matters that that nation is enduring today are not likely to abate, even if they acquire other shapes. The case of China makes this evident: both Republicans and Democrats have reached the conclusion that they are up against a hostile power and they are beginning to act, in unison, under that premise.
For Mexico, the U.S.-China conflict affords opportunities to secure our own production and supply chains and attract new lines of foreign investment, but it also constitutes a wake-up call with respect to the urgency of evaluating the key factors that sustain the current dynamism of our export sector and of taking action to attenuate those elements that are so disruptive in the bilateral relationship. In particular, Mexico must elaborate an integral strategy of rapprochement with the U.S. regions and communities liable to see Mexico as a nearby and reliable partner, all of this for the sake of protecting and guaranteeing our own interests in that nation. This would be even more important were Biden to win.
In contrast with China, Mexico experiences two wellsprings of conflict that are manageable, but which Mexico has not managed. On the one hand, two features are found that have become emblematic of the relationship and that Trump has exploited without batting an eye: migration and the trade surplus, which includes the movement of American production to Mexico. These are old issues, but Mexico has done practically nothing in the political ambit within the U.S. society -not in DC but in Peoria- to neutralize those sources of conflict. Regardless of whether Trump wins or loses come November, this is an open front that Mexico must act upon.
The other source of conflict is deeper and more complex because it concerns Mexico’s own lacks and insufficiencies, many of which manifest themselves in the border zone, but do not originate there, like drugs, insecurity, the lack of legal certainty. These issues are old and did not start with the López Obrador administration, but it is its responsibility to address them. That is where, as the President says, a good domestic policy is good foreign policy.