The world of the last three decades was a historical anomaly: the end of the Cold War seemed to freeze the planet due to the existence of a superpower that made irrelevant the traditional zones of influence, where each regional power imposed its law. Regardless of the specific way the invasion of Ukraine ends, the only thing that is certain is that the so-called “world order” will have changed. We are at an inexorable turning point, just as President López Obrador goes to Washington.
Beyond sanctions and calculations about the end result of that conflict, what is directly relevant for Mexico is what will change in the US-Mexico bilateral relationship, be it with the Biden administration or with whoever follows it.
It is easy to underestimate Uncle Sam, as did the Japanese in 1941, the 9/11 terrorists, and the Russians in the Ukraine. Biden has not been a particularly successful leader, but it is not the person, but rather the superpower that he represents, that Mexico must deal with.
Seen from Mexico City, especially given the enormous capacity that AMLO seems to believe he has developed to influence internal decisions within the US, it is easy for him to imagine that he can impose his agenda on Biden, as he did with the Summit of the Americas a few weeks back. However, historical experience shows that betting against the Americans, as indeed the Mexican government has been doing, is not a very smart strategy.
In an interview when Russia began its assault on Ukraine, Natan Sharansky, a political prisoner in the Soviet era, explained Putin with the following metaphor. “The ringleader in the cell,” he said, wasn’t the one who was physically strongest but the one ready to use his knife. “Everybody has a knife, but not everybody is prepared to use it… Putin believes that he is willing to use his knife and the West isn’t —that the West can only talk even if it is physically stronger.” Putin has spent years assessing the West, especially the United States, and his reading of this led him to conclude that he could invade Ukraine and get away with it. The verdict on this is not yet in, but the fact of having conducted this invasion changed history and this entails enormous implications for Mexico.
President López Obrador is operating under the framework that existed prior to the invasion of Ukraine. Regardless of that nation, it is impossible not to recognize that the world will return to the logic of zones of influence where the world powers – two or three, depending on what turns out- will begin to make their priorities and preferences felt. What China and Russia have already been doing in their zones, each in its own way, will sooner or later be reproduced in the Western hemisphere.
Mexico is the first line of fire in this logic and will undoubtedly be the first to feel the weight of the power of the region. From the US perspective, Mexico has been adrift for years, especially in terms of security, but also because of its inability to solve elementary problems that impede the growth of its economy. For some time since the end of the eighties, when a series of seminal agreements were reached on the principles that would govern the bilateral relationship, the United States was an active and willing factor in supporting the long-awaited internal transformation, the NAFTA being the main fighting horse to achieve that goal. Over time, however, the lack of results and action on the Mexican side ushered in disillusionment in the US. which increasingly limited itself to guarding its border, abandoning the expectation that Mexico would achieve integral development as proposed forty years before.
AMLO has spent months provoking the US government, threatening and snubbing its president and, more recently, offending its population with the grandiose idea of destroying the statue of liberty, one of the few symbols that still unites all Americans. I have no doubt that, geography permitting, López Obrador’s preference would be to distance Mexico from its northern neighbor, but since he cannot, he does everything possible to degrade and diminish the relationship, probably hoping to achieve the same goal, regardless of the cost.
Perhaps the president thinks that he has an inordinate ability to impose his preferences on the Americans, but everyone who knows them knows that, as a sometimes-reluctant superpower, they will sooner or later draw the line on him and impose their rules. Biden may not be able to force Mexico to confront the violence and extortion to which Mexicans are subjected or to improve their living standards, but, as Trump showed, the Americans will not tolerate one offense after another.
The president claims respect and speaks of sovereignty, but this is a chimera in the era of globalization. Respect, to exist, must be mutual and López Obrador has not been characterized by that virtue towards Biden. As for sovereignty, it is achieved and ever strengthened by turning Mexico into a great nation, not by its growing submission to organized crime and with the endless construction of barriers to economic development. The relationship with the US can help on both fronts, but not when the Americans are used as patsies.