In New Zealand, the Maoris engage in a ritual at the start of rugby games called “haka,” which consists of a series of grimaces, exaggerated gestures and movements –ranging from sticking out the tongue to jumping and making all kinds of menacing noises- with the object of scaring their opponents. Their competitors are familiar with the rite and appreciate it as art but, after years of practicing it, no one feels intimidated. I wonder whether, after Trump and now Afghanistan, the world will get accustomed to the new international reality implicit in the ongoing changes within the nation that led the world and kept it in balance from the end of the Second World War.
The triumph of Donald Trump as President of the United States surprised the world not only due to the fact of his winning, but also above all because he did not moderate his discourse on assuming the presidency. Biden has devoted himself to dismantling the Trump legacy, but nonetheless shares a common objective with his predecessor: modifying the premises that characterized the United States at least since 1945. Trump won the 2016 election largely due to the imbalances created by the globalization era, but also to the speed with which technology has made headway and the “shrinking effect” that it has brought about on curtailing distances and on engendering new vulnerabilities –or, in any event, the sensation of vulnerability- where formerly there was no reason at all for it. Biden won the 2020 election largely in reaction to Trump, albeit with a similar agenda: an inward looking vision which, beyond the rhetoric, withdraws the US from the global arena.
The peculiarity of the moment, a phenomenon that could well have enormous implications for Mexico, is that these changes take place in parallel with the rise of China as a world power. China has adhered to a transformative process that has not only permitted the accelerated growth of its economy –to the point of rivaling in size that of the U.S.- but also its leadership is buttressed by a strategic vision that has become exceptional in today’s world. In contrast with U.S. presidents of the Cold War period, the two most recent presidents do not even perceive of the need to think strategically, reacting suddenly and viscerally to circumstances as they materialize, as recently demonstrated by the chaotic exit from Afghanistan: maybe a deserving objective, but pathetic in its execution.
The Chinese ascent, and its construction strategy of a logistic empire, constitutes what Parag Khanna described as the re-creation of the old British Empire, not with colonial possessions but with a network of highways, railways, ports and communications that allow integration of the entire Asian region within itself and with Africa and Europe. This concerns the most ambitious geopolitical project that has been conceived which, without doubt, embodies a threat to the might of the U.S., now saddled with a leadership that does not have the capacity for, but even less so the interest in, understanding or on to what to react.
For many, this constitutes an opportunity to diminish the depth of Mexico’s ties with the U.S. and to embark upon a diversification in its commercial relations. And, doubtlessly, as Luis de la Calle argues,* the commercial and political conflict that characterizes the two powers opens teeming possibilities for Mexico to “reaffirm its position as a credible competitor in the two leading economies,” substituting for Chinese imports in the U.S. and attracting novel sources, and lines, of foreign investments. The opportunity is immense, but requires a concerted strategy on the part of the Mexican government to poise Mexico in the enviable position of being the natural alternative with respect to these two nations; but the window will not be eternal: on not being taken advantage of, it will be lost.
In the broader framework of Mexico within the changing international environment, it is fundamental to reflect on the implications of China’s rise and the potential political changes in the U.S. in the coming years, for the interaction between the two will determine the panorama in which Mexico will be able to move. China has exceptional strategic leadership, an extraordinary capacity of adaptation and its political nature permits it to have associations that democratic nations would not even contemplate.
On the other hand, it is not possible to minimize the challenges that China will confront in economic as well as in political spheres in the coming decades. On its part, Americans lack a similarly enlightened leadership and are undergoing great political polarization that makes it possible to visualize marked shifts in their internal politics before they recover, as so many times in the past, their traditional strategic clarity. It is easy to underestimate the Americans, but their open political system empowers them to regenerate fast. Nothing is written in stone.
Mexico has remarkable opportunities if it intelligently takes advantage of the fissures that are today paramount on the U.S.–China relationship, but this will require a great exercise of leadership and vision, something that has not been one of Mexico’s most noteworthy trademarks. On the other hand, the rapidly advancing disappearance of the liberal vision that, at least in concept, was the centerpiece of the recent decades’ economic policy, constitutes a formidable impediment for seizing this opportunity.