Mexico, Relations with

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MEXICO, RELATIONS WITH. The relationship of the United States and Mexico has been greatly influenced by a long land border, asymmetry in economic and political power, deep-rooted social and economic ties, and a troublesome history of intervention and war associated with Washington's search for new territory, resources, security, and stability. By the end of the twentieth century, Mexico was the United States's second largest trading partner, a key member of the three-state North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the source of millions of immigrants to the United States, and a thorn in the side of Washington when it came to border crime, drug trafficking, corruption, and a set of foreign policy principles often out of sync with its neighbor to the north. The differences between the United States and Mexico do not mean that relations have not improved considerably since the end of the Cold War and the creation of NAFTA; but important legacies from a complex and difficult past continue to influence U.S.-Mexican relations, including a residual anti-Americanism in Mexico tied to the loss of over half its national territory in the nineteenth century and the way Mexico is often treated in the conduct of American foreign policy.

Relations between the United States and Mexico have evolved from a pattern of either conflict or indifference to a new partnership in their bilateral relations. From Mexico's independence from Spain in 1821 through the violence and turmoil of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917), relations between the United States and Mexico were dominated by conflict and intervention. During this early period the United States was the dominant power, pursuing its interests—territorial expansion and national security concerns—through military force and diplomatic bluster. The conflict associated with the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution led President Woodrow Wilson to invade Mexico several times and to occupy it for brief periods in order to protect U.S. economic interests built up during the nineteenth century and to keep foreign powers from developing alliances with Mexico. Mexico and the United States formed a new relationship during World War II (1942–1945), eschewing the foreign policy of nonintervention and sensitivity to issues related to national sovereignty in favor of heightened collaboration on a broad range of wartime issues. During the Cold War the United States and Mexico developed a new style in which the two countries bargained on some issues and mostly neglected, or ignored, one another on other matters until the late 1980s. With the end of the Cold War the United States and Mexico began a period of extraordinary cooperation, marked by NAFTA and immigration, debt relief, and antidrug efforts. Presidents George H. W. Bush and Carlos Salinas de Gortari not only championed the creation of NAFTA but also put in motion a new relationship based on a less ideological and more pragmatic approach to bilateral issues. Presidents Bill Clinton and Ernesto Zedillo met frequently to discuss bilateral issues of concern to the two countries during a period marked by strain over drug trafficking, migration, and Mexico's debt.

The 2000 defeat of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) after more than seventy years of continual rule caused a stir in Washington, uncertain as to how a relative unknown—President Vicente Fox and a coalition headed by the National Action Party (PAN)—would deal with the United States after years of predictability under PRI presidents. With the almost simultaneous election of Fox and George W. Bush in 2000, relations between the United States and Mexico showed further signs of continuing the historic shift to a more productive partnership based on the salience of bilateral issues such as trade, democracy, immigration, drug trafficking, economic stability, and the environment.

The analysis that follows examines five broad periods of U.S.-Mexican relations: (1) conflict, intervention, and turmoil between 1821 and 1940; (2) World War II and the beginnings of bilateral cooperation; (3) the Cold War, an era of bilateral bargaining and policy negligence; (4) constructing a more permanent relationship, 1988–2000; and (5) the new millennium.

Conflict, Intervention, and Turmoil: 1821–1940

Conflict and turmoil were the dominant traits in U.S.-Mexican relations for most of the nineteenth century and during the first four decades of the twentieth century. It was an unstable period during which Mexico struggled to create an effective political system with legitimate authority and a population with a common national identity, and the United States was interested mainly in territorial expansion and national security. Between 1836 and 1920 the United States intervened with military force at least fifteen times to protect American interests. The inability of Mexico to solve its internal political problems and Washington's expansionist desires in the 1840s contributed to a war with Mexico (1846–1848) in which the United States invaded Mexico and compelled it to yield a vast amount of its northern territory. Great Britain, France, and Spain also took an interest in Mexico for economic and political reasons. When France invaded and occupied Mexico between 1862 and 1867, the United States was helpless—largely due to the small size of its military and to an internal war driven by abolition and secession—and Mexico found that the Monroe Doctrine offered no guarantees against recolonization efforts by European powers in the Western Hemisphere. The Mexican-American War and the French invasion and occupation became a catalyst for Mexican resentment of the United States and the basis for a highly nationalistic foreign policy.

The repressive nature of the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz and the hospitality offered foreign investment during the last two decades of the nineteenth century contributed to the beginning of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Trade and foreign investment, the cornerstones of the Porfirian era (1876–1911), contributed to the antiforeign aspects of the revolution. By 1911 the United States controlled close to 40 percent of all foreign investment in Mexico, a figure almost equal to that of all U.S. investment in Latin America and the Caribbean. The positive benefits of foreign investment—mostly in railroads, mining, and real estate—could not offset the negative reactions to U.S. control of Mexico's destiny. U.S. involvement in Mexico's civil war contributed to further distrust of the northern neighbor and to postrevolutionary efforts to assert greater national sovereignty and reduce foreign control through the creation of new policies designed to fulfill the desires of those who fought in the Mexican Revolution. While President Franklin Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy helped erase some of the tensions in U.S.-Mexican relations through a pledge of nonintervention, reciprocity, and equality among states, the bilateral relationship did not improve until the onset of World War II.

World War II: The Beginnings of Bilateral Cooperation

The Good Neighbor Policy and the astute diplomatic handling of the conflict over Mexico's nationalization of U.S. oil properties and investments between 1938 and 1941 opened the way for greater collaboration during World War II and cordial relations at the beginning of the Cold War. The fact that the United States chose not to retaliate against Mexico's decision to expropriate foreign-owned oil companies, and thus run the risk of Mexico's aligning itself with Germany, Japan, or Italy during World War II, was a major turning point in U.S.-Mexican relations. After German submarines sank several Mexican tankers in the Gulf of Mexico in 1942, Mexico promptly declared war on the Axis powers, and Mexico and the United States became formal allies. This arrangement was a boon to both countries: it created the first military alliance between the two countries, provided the basis for a historic reconciliation, and created an era of good feelings during the war years. The United States gained access to Mexico's raw materials for the war effort and arranged to import lower-paid Mexican workers to fill a critical labor shortage in the United States because of the war. The wartime collaboration between U.S. and Mexican secret police and security bureaucracies continued after the war, particularly in antidrug and crime reduction efforts along the border.

The Cold War: Bilateral Bargaining and Policy Negligence

The period known as the Cold War brought relative harmony in U.S.-Mexican relations. Mexico emphasized economic growth and political stability while Washington worried about ways to combat communism in Latin America and establish order along its southern border. According to Domínguez and Fernández, between 1945 and 1988 a new style emerged in U.S.-Mexican bilateral relations that they refer to as "bargained negligence." What this means is that the two countries developed a tacit bargain in which Mexico rejected any overtures from the Soviet Union and kept its authoritarian political system from adopting communist practices while the United States pursued a noninterventionist policy toward Mexico. As long as Mexico supported capitalism and the containment of communism, the United States almost completely ignored its southern neighbor.

There were times during the Cold War when Mexico's revolutionary heritage of nationalism and antipathy toward outside intervention provided discordant tones in U.S.-Mexican relations. From 1954 until 1989 Mexico opposed U.S. intervention in Guatemala, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Grenada, and Panama. While the United States resented Mexico's refusal to sever diplomatic relations with Castro's Cuba during the Cold War (and its opposition to the collective sanctions imposed on the island by the Organization of American States), Mexico was not a foreign policy priority despite the growing interdependence of the two countries. Mexico also alienated Washington by extending aid to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, opposing Ronald Reagan's Contras (terrorists, in the minds of many Mexicans), and recognizing the Salvadoran guerrillas and their political party as legitimate political actors. The United States complained about the durability of Soviet-Mexican relations during the Cold War, including the size and intelligence activities of the Soviet embassy in Mexico City, but Washington never found it necessary to invoke the Monroe Doctrine or intervene militarily in Mexico, as it did so readily elsewhere in Latin America. The paradox of Mexico's support for leftist governments abroad while it suppressed leftists at home did not seem to bother U.S. policymakers in charge of Latin America and the Caribbean.

However, there were critical times during the Cold War when the United States was forced to elevate Mexico to a foreign policy priority. In one way or another, all of the following conflicts contributed to a realization that "bargained negligence" could not be sustained as the predominant style of the bilateral relationship: (1) the domestic disturbances associated with the 1968 Olympic Games and the increasing authoritarianism of Mexico's one-dominant-party system; (2) the demands on worldwide supplies of petroleum and the discovery of huge petroleum reserves in the Gulf of Mexico; (3) the debt crisis of 1982 that led to near collapse of the Mexican economy and a growing realization that a new political economy might be needed to pump trade-based pesos into the ailing economic system; and (4) the crime and corruption associated with drug trafficking and money laundering that came with Mexico's growing economic problems. Unable to service its foreign debt and experiencing a traumatic decline in petroleum revenues, Mexico was forced to begin a series of economic adjustment policies that eventually led to a free trade agreement with the United States and Canada in 1991. Throughout most of the Cold War it was difficult for Mexico to overcome its historical antipathy toward the predatory nature of its superpower neighbor and fully recognize the economic advantages of establishing a closer relationship with the United States. While it was possible to ignore the absence of democracy in Mexico during much of the Cold War, Washington's view of Mexico's ruling party as a bastion of stability could not be sustained once the Cold War was over.

Constructing a More Permanent Relationship: 1988–2000

The end of the Cold War and the elections of Carlos Salinas de Gortari and George H. W. Bush as presidents of their respective nations opened the way for constructing a new relationship, one based on greater collaboration through economic integration. The essence of the pact was the creation of NAFTA, a new partnership based on shared economic interests. While NAFTA was popular and easy to sell to the Mexican public, north of the border it faced major currents of opposition from organized labor, environmental interest groups, and the Democratic opposition in the U.S. Congress. However, both governments lobbied hard for NAFTA, and by late 1993 it had been constructed, albeit on somewhat narrow and shaky ground, in Congress and among the general public. Despite the ongoing debates about the benefits of NAFTA as a mechanism for economic integration, the passage of such a free trade agreement represents a serious change in the U.S.-Mexican relationship, and perhaps the most important bilateral agreement since the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (1848) that ended the Mexican-American War.

The institutionalization of bilateral affairs continued through the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Ernesto Zedillo (1992–2000), despite challenges and turmoil on both sides of the border. The creation of NAFTA brought to light the emergence of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, an indigenous revolt led by Subcommander Marcos, that complained of the negative consequences of economic integration and globalization for the plight of indigenous communities dispersed throughout Mexico. During the first six years of NAFTA, Mexico emerged as the United States' second-largest trading partner after Canada, with two-way trade approaching $210 billion in 2000. NAFTA also generated demand for the creation of more maquiladora assembly plants in the northern border region, but this trend exacerbated the growing gap between the wealth of the north and the poverty in southern Mexico. While NAFTA's benefits to the United States have been less than those for Mexico, American presidents continued to champion the benefits of "free trade" for Mexico and Latin America. Many blamed NAFTA for the increasing amount of drug-funded official corruption in Mexico during the 1990s, and there was growing concern over human rights abuses related to economic inequalities and the use of the Mexican military to suppress domestic insurgencies in the more impoverished parts of Mexico. There were still currents of opposition to the new economic partnership in the legislative branches of both countries. The emphasis on economic integration contributed to greater collaboration on matters of immigration, border security, and narcotrafficking; however, these were difficult and sensitive issues that often reflect images of conflict and suspicion from previous periods in bilateral relations.

The New Millennium: Democratization, Security, Partnership for Prosperity

The days of virtual single-party rule ended with the national elections that took place in Mexico on 2 July 2000. Vicente Fox, a charismatic businessman-politician from the interior of Mexico, defeated the ruling party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional—PRI) with a well-orchestrated coalition campaign led by the National Action Party (PAN). After seventy-one years of continual rule, the PRI lost the presidency but in the aftermath of the humiliating defeat retained a considerable amount of political power, particularly in both houses of the federal Congress, where it won the largest number of seats, and throughout the country, where it still controlled a majority of governorships in key states.

The fairness and accuracy of the 2000 election moved Mexico closer to a pluralist democracy with Vicente Fox at the helm, but with a party split between the executive and legislative branches of government, the new president's sexenio (six-year, nonrenewable term of office, 2000–2006) would be fraught with many challenges that his PRI predecessors never had to face. His rule enhanced with a greater sense of democratic legitimacy, and with a firm conviction of the importance of free trade, Fox pursued a foreign policy of closer ties with the United States and the rest of Latin America.

In order to achieve his foreign policy goal of a "Partnership for Prosperity" with the United States, President Fox faced a number of challenges. He managed to forge close ties with the new administration of George W. Bush and received positive reviews from the media and the attentive public in the United States. However, Fox faced a Congress that retained more of Mexico's traditional emphasis on nationalism and noninterference, and he soon realized that he would have to place greater emphasis on creating bureaucratic agencies to better manage the bilateral relationship. The Mexican ambassador to the United States and the Mexican embassy in Washington, D.C., were given enhanced power and coordinating responsibilities. President Fox chose as his foreign minister Jorge G. Castañeda, a highly competent but controversial figure with roots in the Mexican left. Castaneda quickly learned to adjust and adapt the major goals of Mexican foreign policy to the necessity of dealing with Republicans on Capitol Hill and the conservative members of the George W. Bush administration. Between the time President Bush took office in January 2001 and early 2002, he and President Fox met to discuss important bilateral issues on four occasions, including the first state dinner at the White House for the Mexican delegation, just prior to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001.

President Fox campaigned on several foreign policy issues that would provide a broader base of support for improving Mexican relations with the United States. A champion of free trade, Fox favored the creation of an amended NAFTA that would amount to a common market to allow a freer flow of workers and goods while adhering to provisions regarding labor, law enforcement, and workers' rights in the original agreement. The architect of this proposal was Foreign Minister Castañeda, a supporter of earlier opposition calls for a European-like arrangement that would facilitate free labor mobility in North America. On his three-nation Latin American tour in March 2002, President Bush unveiled a new security plan for the U.S.-Mexican border designed to "weed out those who we don't want in our country—the terrorists, the coyotes, the smugglers, those who prey on innocent life." He and President Fox signed a complex "smart border" plan that included expanded intelligence cooperation and special passes for Mexicans who make frequent border crossings. The hands on, problem-solving process of reaching a bilateral agreement on a new border program was not matched by other initiatives on immigration—particularly the effort to increase the number of legal Mexican workers in the United States—and other thorny issues. In any case the meetings and conversations between presidents Bush and Fox suggested to some a new era of high-level cooperation. When pressed on the seriousness of his interest in Mexico, Bush responded, "A strong and prosperous Mexico is good for America." Now that Mexico has become more democratic, and the United States has come to realize that collaboration with Mexico is not a luxury but a necessity, the challenge for more productive United States–Mexico relations will most likely rest on confidence-building measures related to new and creative approaches to bilateral relations.


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See alsoGood Neighbor Policy ; Mexican-American War ; Mexican-American War Claims ; Mexico City, Capture of ; Mexico, Confederate Migration to ; Mexico, Punitive Expedition into ; andvol. 9:Mexican Minister of War's Reply to Manuel de la Peña y Peña ; Message on the War with Mexico .

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