The Destruction of Mexico’s Foreign Policy

Mexico's foreign policy’s recurrent ignominies and blunders are not the result of an incompetent strategy or a mistake, but rather a series of tantrums lacking any direction or purpose.


Image Source: World Politics Review.

“It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.” ― John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

The following lines recount a recent political and institutional demolition. Moreover, they are also a warning about the consequences of populism and demagoguery. The history of Mexico’s foreign policy during the twentieth century is an example of how medium-sized powers can build successful foreign policy strategies despite their limited resources. The events described here are not intended as a vindication of a regime that was, for decades, undemocratic and fraught with flaws. Rather, this account is intended to demonstrate a contrast. Using history allows us to expose the divergence between a policy based on principles and foresight in politics versus one reduced to fickle reactions and improvisation.

What was

On July 13th, 1939, the ocean liner Sinaia arrived on the shores of the Mexican port of Veracruz with 1,600 refugees from the Spanish Civil War. It was neither the first nor the last voyage that brought Spanish refugees to a new home, but it did epitomize a gesture of welcome and empathy while Europe descended into its most wretched period. Mexico understood that Spain had to expel certain citizens to enter fully into its debacle. Under the leadership of President Lázaro Cárdenas, Mexico became not only a generous country but one with enough foresight to understand that European immigration would propel the modernization of a country that was still suffering the wounds of civil war. The generosity was promptly reciprocated through important contributions to Mexico’s universities, government institutions, arts, and sciences. The Mexican government was wise enough to understand that protecting refugees was much more than a migration policy; it was the idea of a country, a long-term national project.

The idea established a precedent, principles which sustained Mexico’s foreign policy for several decades onwards. Some heroic anecdotes are worth remembering, as they elucidate principles of Mexico’s bygone foreign policy. Mexico was categorical in its condemnation of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and Abyssinia by the fascist Italian regime in 1935. And notwithstanding its military irrelevance, Mexico sent the ‘Escuadron 201’ fighter squadron to show its support for the Allied powers during WWII. “It wasn’t me; it was Mexico,” was Gilberto Bosques’ answer when asked why he had saved thousands of people during the Vichy Regime. Appointed as consul general in France, Bosques issued more than 40,000 visas to save Jews and Spaniards from persecution and death. Decades later, in 1973, during Pinochet’s coup, Mexican ambassador Gonzalo Martínez Corbalá used the embassy in Santiago de Chile to protect Allende’s family and around 800 Chileans fleeing from persecution. A year later, in 1974, Vicente Muñiz, the Mexican ambassador to Uruguay, also used the embassy to save hundreds of political refugees pursued by the military dictatorship of Juan Maria Bordaberry. Mexico also received political refugees from other Latin American dictatorships, such as Argentina and Guatemala. Mexico’s policy of asylum to refugees from dictatorships raised the country’s international stature.

Likewise, during the second half of the twentieth century, despite its growing cultural integration into North America, Mexico took the initiative of looking south and assuring a place as a geopolitical player in Latin America. In 1967, the Tlatelolco Treaty was promoted by Foreign Minister Alfonso Garcia Robles. It became a model for the responsible use of nuclear energy and subsequent non-proliferation treaties; he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982. In 1980, the San Jose Agreements helped Central American countries buy oil at discount prices, an opportunity that allowed these nations to navigate growing inequalities and internal conflicts. Another effort to help Latin American allies came in 1983 when the Contadora Group, initiated by Mexico, Colombia, Panama, and Venezuela, spearheaded an effort, supported by the UN Security Council, to control rising violence and political instability in Central America. The nowadays politically manipulated and distorted principle of nonintervention was far from an excuse for several Mexican administrations to denounce dictatorships and human rights abuses. In 1979, the Lopez Portillo administration severed diplomatic relations with the regime of Anastasio Somoza. Mexico also broke diplomatic relations with Spain from 1939 to 1977, with China from 1949 to 1972, and with Chile between 1973 and 1990.

These anecdotes harken back to a set of principles once safeguarded by responsible civil servants, institutions, and a political system capable of understanding its strengths and limitations. The country educated qualified diplomats who defended a dignified foreign policy: Mexico had a place in the world; hence, the world had a place for Mexico.

The turbulent political landscape of the twentieth century, an age of extremes as Hobsbawm called it, required singular adroitness. Neighboring the world’s greatest power, Mexico had to build an ingenious foreign service to adapt to the power imbalance, especially during the surly cleavages of the Cold War. The well-known phrase of President Lopez Mateos implied the uneasy nature of the bilateral relationship: “As close as indispensable and as far as possible.” Defending multilateralism and the pursuit of foreign policy principles, such as political asylum for refugees of Latin American dictatorships, was part of the strategy; likewise, according to Mexican historian Soledad Loaeza, Mexico also emphasized the construction of formal institutions as an approach to contain the power asymmetry with the United States and lessen foreign meddling.

The study of geopolitics is commonly dominated by big power competition. Nations with relatively feeble economic and military clout are frequently expected — or forced — to choose sides and then simply jump on the bandwagon. Yet this perception is deceiving. Handling relative power equally requires dexterity and talent; by definition, it necessitates attaining national objectives with scarcer means and flimsy tools. But medium-sized powers do have choices. One is becoming a country with just enough power to disrupt the international order but not enough to participate in it peacefully and constructively. On a more positive stance, these nations can understand the importance of using international law and institutions to have a place at the table and foster their standing. The law can be a political tool for the less powerful, as it provides a basic platform of equality among otherwise disparate levels of power.

What’s left

In April 2022, during a political rally, former president Donald Trump mocked the administration of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) for its submissive attitude following his demands to control migration, “I’ve never seen anybody fold like that. They [the AMLO administration] said it would be an honor to have 28,000 free soldiers [at the border]”. Mexico’s government has transformed the country’s geographically gifted position from an advantage to a threat, sustained by the political use of immigration. AMLO’s platitude, “The best foreign policy is a good domestic policy,” is a euphemism for irresponsibility and incompetence. The rapprochement with dictatorships in the hemisphere is evident and unambiguous. AMLO sabotaged the Ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles because the three dictators, Maduro, Diaz-Canel, and Ortega, were not invited. Likewise, Diaz-Canel was invited as a key speaker during the celebration of Independence Day in Mexico City.

Mexico’s phony impartiality during the Ukrainian war has only served to help the aggressor. Mexico abstained from voting in favor of the Russian expulsion from the Human Rights Council of the UN. After the president denounced the delivery of military and economic aid to Ukraine as a mere prolongation of the conflict, a Russian delegation was invited to participate in the annual military parade. The ruling party created a ‘friendship group” with Russia in Congress, an effort widely celebrated by the Russian embassy, which abundant evidence suggests being one of the largest gathering of Russian agents in the hemisphere.

Insults have been directed towards North America and Europe. Latin America has likewise received its share of slurs. The administration has severely damaged the relations with South America. Several offenses have been directed at attempting to dissolve the OAS and criticizing Secretary General Luis Almagro. The ‘Alianza del Pacifico’ an alliance gathering Chile, Colombia, and Peru to facilitate trade of goods and services, representing “44 percent of the total flow of FDI and half of foreign trade in the region, with exports that account for 55 percent of the total in Latin America and the Caribbean”, was severely damaged when AMLO avoided handing over the interim presidency of the alliance to Peru. AMLO was also declared persona non grata by the Peruvian Congress after supporting Pedro Castillo’s coup and rejecting the new constitutional government. Similarly, Evo Morales was hosted by the AMLO administration after his unconstitutional attempts to remain in power in Bolivia.

It is futile to create an up-to-date list of all the foreign policy calamities and offenses of recent years. But there is a clear trend. The offensive agreement with the hemisphere’s cruelest dictatorships, working as an abettor of the Cuban regime and its criminal scheme to transfer money through their forced labor practices with doctors; the disgusting false equivalence regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine; the total abandonment of the Hispanic community in the United States; the total disdain for the fentanyl epidemic in the United States; and the use of migration (or rather, migrants) as a bargaining chip for political leverage, all lead to a central takeaway: Mexico’s foreign policy’s recurrent ignominies and blunders are not the result of an incompetent strategy or a mistake, but rather a series of tantrums lacking any direction or purpose. Insults opaque the underlying short-termism and rashness. As with everything else, foreign policy is now subject to the whims of an unplanned daily press conference.

The inexhaustible list of insults also represents a retreat from an intricate and messy world; they are an admission of guilt. In populist frenzies, offenses become shelters. When the Mexican president says that the best foreign policy is a good national policy, he is trying to downgrade the world to so few words that it is difficult not to relinquish the topic altogether. Asking Spain for an apology for events that occurred 500 years ago is a vulgar performance but also a way of concealing the ineptitude in handling a complex bilateral relationship with a modern country and partner. Unfortunately, the lack of a strategy does have consequences. The weakening of the foreign service and the lack of a comprehensive national industrial policy has left the country without tools to properly seize the nearshoring opportunity. In the third trimester of 2023, FDI was the lowest in almost thirty years, with the exception of the third trimester of 2020 during the peak of the Covid pandemic. Nearshoring is happening despite the government, not because of it. AMLO’s affinity with Russia has not translated to any leadership role in the global south, but rather to isolation and contempt. The effects of using migration as political leverage will likely not surface during an election year, but they will erode Mexico’s relationship with the United States in the future.

The populist corrupt mirage is a constant attempt to simplify, to forcibly jam complexity into the narrow tunnel of ignorance. It takes another sort of strength and capacity to cooperate and not simply disrupt frail international arrangements. In the Mexican context, the harm is twofold because it consists not only of the present disregard, but also of the devastation of what once was. While Pinochet and his thugs slaughtered and carried out their coup, Martínez Corbalá opened the gates of the embassy for shelter. While Francisco Franco was signing death sentences, Gilberto Bosques was signing visas. And the world knew. Perhaps, in the future, beneath the current vestiges, the past will lend some foundations.

Emiliano Polo holds a master’s degree in Global Affairs and International Security. He currently works in the American Program at CSIS.

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