Enrique Peña Nieto’s meeting today with President Obama and other senior U.S. government officials in Washington sets the stage for a productive and vibrant bilateral relationship, but challenges await. As expected, the atmospherics surrounding the brief visit are welcoming and congratulatory. Both leaders seek to establish a meaningful personal connection that will carry them through the coming years of inevitable ups and downs in a dense and fluid bilateral relationship—one of the most complicated, yet potentially rewarding, in the world. At the same time, they are anxious to discuss the outlines of the agenda anticipated under a Peña Nieto presidency, including energy and tax reform, social security, and security, all areas that impact Mexico’s global competitiveness and priority areas for reform.
Fundamentally, these are issues for Mexicans to address. The United States can nonetheless assist the new president by taking actions that are in our own self-interest. Foremost among these is immigration reform, which President Obama has promoted as an issue for 2013. The United States could also do more to promote the rule of law, first by curtailing our own demand for illegal drugs and also by curtailing the supply of automatic weapons and ill-gotten financial gains from the United States to Mexico.
But the real opportunity, as Mexico’s Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan has suggested, is to move from a transactional to a strategic relationship, much like the United States enjoys with Canada, especially in the economic sphere. The three nations of North America now make up an integrated platform for manufacturing and production; for example, it no longer makes sense to talk about cars that are “made in America.” Now, they are made in North America, as are numerous other products. Rather than resisting this trend, we should be celebrating and promoting it, because doing so makes our own economy more efficient and our people more prosperous, as it does with both Mexico and Canada.
The Obama administration has been late to this game, but now sees the logic and the importance to the struggling U.S. economy of further economic integration with our two closest and most vibrant economic partners. Both Mexico and Canada were finally invited to join the negotiations toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an important if belated step. Both should also be included at the very beginning of discussions with Europe—should they occur as has been rumored—toward the creation of a free trade zone in the Atlantic. Such trade negotiations would provide an added means for the three North American economies to build cooperation.
Even so, trade negotiations to which all three nations are a party are a poor substitute for a meaningful dialogue among the three North American nations to deepen economic partnership directly. Having ignored the Bush-era Security and Prosperity Partnership and the North American Competitiveness Council, the Obama administration should now consider re-creating a vehicle designed to improve North American competitiveness by other means. North American energy cooperation, regulatory rationalization, innovation, and border affairs management are all areas crying out for additional coordination, among others. This would also help restore balance to the relationship, which has skewed heavily in recent years toward the security and drugs agenda. Not coincidentally, restoring balance to the bilateral relationship is one of President Peña Nieto’s primary tasks in Washington.
Of course, the meeting today is just the beginning. It is a very good sign that Vice President Biden will lead the U.S. delegation to the inauguration in Mexico City on Saturday, since he is the highest U.S. official who might travel to the inauguration of a foreign leader. This is an important symbol of respect for the new president and people of Mexico.
Which is not to say that all will be smooth or perfect going forward. There will be bumps in the road, and certainly Peña Nieto has a hugely ambitious domestic agenda before him. Security remains an issue, even though it is improving. Mexico’s economy is growing, but further success cannot be taken for granted, particularly if the U.S. economy continues to struggle. Energy, taxes, and social security form a three-headed hydra that has defeated other skilled leaders. At the same time, he needs to show that the PRI is not the sclerotic, corrupt machine of the past, and therefore rely less on patronage and the levers available to previous PRI leaders to pass as ambitious an agenda as has been mooted since the PRI transformed the Mexican economy for the first time in the 1930s.
President-elect Peña Nieto and his team have their work cut out for him. Now is when the hard work really begins.
*Eric Farnsworth is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington DC.