A new government in Mexico. A new foreign policy?

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A new government in Mexico. A new foreign policy?

A new government in Mexico. A new foreign policy?

capesic Latin America and the Caribbean 22/01/2019 Comments

On July 1st 2018 Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), the leftist candidate in the ballot, won Mexico’s presidential election with nearly 53% of the votes. His slogan “together we will make history” held a strong bond with the candidate’s taste for country’s history. His government promises to implement the fourth transformation in the long-run evolution process since the independence from Spain in early 19th Century (firstly), (second transformation) the secular reform in mid-19th Century, and the Mexican revolution at the beginning of 20th Century (third). In his third attempt to win the Presidency, López Obrador centered his campaign in fighting corruption and re-designing a system of welfare in order to combat the origins of criminal violence and socio-economic inequalities.

As it usually happens in political campaigns, foreign policy was not a central part of his political offer –nor was the case for the rest of candidates, even though one of them had experience as Secretary of Foreign Affairs -, or despite the fact that the relation with the United States was headline every now and then thanks to President Trump’s rhetorical style. Interestingly, when the three major candidates’ speakers for the foreign policy discussed this field one could feel there was a consensus around serving the guiding principles for Mexico’s international relations (included in the Federal Constitution since 1988), and the idea of world order that Mexico supports (liberal and multilateral).

Such principles are in the Constitution (article 89, section X), but their interpretation is nuanced according each politician or analyst. Foreign policy is a competence of the President, who leads it following the principles of “the right to self-determination; non-intervention; peaceful solution of controversies; outlawing the use of force or threat in international relations; equal rights of States; international cooperation for development; the respect, protection and promotion of human rights; and the struggle for international peace and security.”


AMLO appointed Marcelo Ebrard as head of the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs (SRE). He is an experienced politician trained in International Relations at Colegio de México –one of Mexico’s elite public colleges– who governed Mexico City in 2006-2012. He also served as Deputy Secretary at SRE between 1993-1994. Ebrard’s choice of Deputy Secretaries is a mix between a inner-circle team member (Martha Delgado, an expert in environment and former Minister of Environment in Mexico City when Ebrard was Mayor, is now in charge of Multilateral Issues and Human Rights), old-time experts (Jesús Seade, a trade diplomat, scholar and personal envoy of President-Elect López Obrador to negotiate the new North America Free Trade Agreement, who now leads the North American Deputy Secretariat. And Amb. Julián Ventura, an experienced career diplomat now handling the Deputy Secretariat of Foreign Affairs –in charge of Africa, Asia, and Europe) and a discreet profile politician (Maximiliano Reyes, a former member of Mexico City’s parliament who chaired its International Committee and now is Deputy Secretary for Latin America –the one drawing most of attention in recent weeks).


During the recent annual meeting of Ambassadors and Consuls held in Mexico City, the new government introduced them to the new Secretaries of Interior, Security, Finance, Economics, and others. They set the new tone of Mexican policies to be shared abroad. Some of them are consistent with what it existed before, like macroeconomic equilibria to make Mexico attractive as investment place and trade partner. But others show evident changes: a new paradigm on migration, open and orderly. AMLO’s Administration announced a deep cut of public spending in high spheres of bureaucracy to model a more austere public service –thus freeing resources for the welfare plans. Both the foreign trade and investment promotion agency and the international tourism attraction council were shut down. These are tasks now given to SRE.


Marcelo Ebrard, head of the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs (SRE), in his closing address at the 30th meeting of Ambassadors and Consuls held in Mexico City, 11/01/2019 (Source: Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores website).

The relation with the USA has been for centuries determinant for the Mexican foreign policies. One-tenth of Mexico’s population lives there (up to 30% when considering not only people born in Mexican soil but also their children and grandchildren born in the USA), year-after-year more than 80% of exports are sold to the USA, and half of FDI stock to Mexico since NAFTA entered in force in 1994 came from the US. Multiple governments in the past had used strategies of liberal and multilateral action at the international arena, with relative success, to obtain space as an independent nation. The new Administration is aware of these figures and experience, but also of the fact that in Washington rules since 2017 a very difficult interlocutor. AMLO has strong opinions, however, nothing compares to Trump. Not in essence nor in form. Neither their ideas of world order resemble. AMLO’s Ambassador to Washington, Martha Bárcena, is a career diplomat, politically progressive and the first woman serving as Mexico’s representative in DC. She has the uneasy task to convince US parliament to vote the new North American trade agreement and defend the interests of Mexicans in that territory amidst the increased hatred against them. Related to this issue “stands” President Trump´s fixation about building a wall along the Mexican border: AMLO has kept a discrete but clear opinion against it, arguing that is an USA subject; but he opposes both the measure and Trump’s wishes that Mexico pays for such endeavor.

During the campaign, AMLO assured his foreign policy would emphasize the Mexican affinity and closeness to Latin America and the Caribbean, and it would promote friendly relations with all countries of the world. In doing this, he was departing from a two-decades trend in Mexican foreign policy: with the argument of defending human rights, Mexico criticized domestic policies in several countries. In addition, as Brazil was strengthening its regional hierarchy and growing aspirations of a global actor, Mexico reinforced its competition with that country and took sides with the developed North.

However, AMLO´s government starts under heavy fire from critics at home and abroad for having invited President Maduro of Venezuela to his inauguration, and then for abstaining to support Group of Lima’s declaration in the sense of not recognizing Maduro’s new term. Seen the vocal debates on this decision, one could think Mexican foreign policy would be defined around the Venezuela case. In Mexico City, it seems to be clear that non-intervention principle is a cornerstone and that, eventually, it will be more useful for Venezuelan society to count Mexico as valid interlocutor even mediator in the region, than continuing aligned with the harsh critics of Maduro’s government.

AMLO’s foreign policy success or failure is likely to be measured regarding Central America enormous challenge of migration. Here, things are now different. The new government makes efforts to innovate the policy towards the North Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras). AMLO understood that the problems of migration for economic and violence reasons share the same origin: underdevelopment –this perspective is also compatible with his diagnosis of Mexico’s ills. This rationale drives the strategy of development cooperation announced together with the three governments and the support of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC). Mexico wants to involve Washington and Ottawa in adding funds to the initiatives, which could retain migrants in their home countries and not crossing Mexico aiming to reach the US. Given such evidence, the relation with North America and Central America will definitely brand AMLO’s foreign policy.


Marcelo Ebrard, head of the SRE, and Wang Yi, China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, meeting in China, 10/11/2018 (Source: President AMLO’s website).

As mentioned above, the good relations with all countries of the world mark a different guideline compared to the previous government. This includes a symbolic invitee to the inauguration overlooked by the pundits of foreign relations in Mexico: a high-ranking representative of North Korea after Mexico had declared Pyongyang’s ambassador as non-grata persona back in 2017 following atomic weapons tests. Mexico is also looking for more political dialogue and economic exchanges with China, especially its FDI. It might be eloquent the fact that before taking office, Secretary Ebrard visited China and declared the strategic value of this relationship for the new government –Chinese authorities insisted in inviting Mexico to be a partner of the Belt and Road Initiative.

In this way, are the relations with North Korea, China or Venezuela a sign that Mexico is aligning with governments not well regarded by Western and/or liberal countries? It is not the case. Rather, it can be read as doing things differently. In contrast, to do different things would be, for instance, to renounce to international regimes or institutions. And AMLO’s government has not announced such intentions. All the opposite, this Administration insists on its commitment with the multilateral order and frequently announces invitation to international organizations’ representative to support Mexican officials in their tasks or observe the implementation of public policies (such as human rights or government procurement).

Regarding Mexico-Europe relations, this might illustrate the notion of doing things differently: while there has not been announced a visit of the President or the Chancellor to Europe –in previous administrations, there were tournées even before inauguration–, the Mexican plans to contribute to developing Central America is taken positively by the European Union. Brussels ambassador to Mexico even announced the interest in being a partner of this initiative. Mexico has in Europe the most reliable political partners for its own interests of national and Latin American development, as well as in multilateral fora in the quest for global governance.

Mexico and EU are currently in the final phase of negotiating details of the updated version of their Economic Partnership, Political Coordination and Cooperation Agreement, in force since 2000. Undoubtedly this is the most comprehensive document signed by Mexico because it includes the political and cooperation “pillars”. Nevertheless, compared to when they signed it in 1997, Mexico has now more FTAs with even more dynamic economies around the globe. Notwithstanding, some EU economies rank as major trade partners and source of FDI for Mexico outside North America. Whereas the new United States-Mexico-Canada agreement (USMCA) implies challenges to European companies already established in Mexico and exporting to those two markets, the new Administration should find a way to make good use of its European partners to balance the heavy weight of North America.

The new government seems to have a clear aim in its foreign policy, that is to win more maneuvering space –whether regional or thematic wise– away from the US. Secretary Ebrard suggested that in a world of uncertainties, Mexican presidential election results show the country is gaining self-confidence about building its own future. Undoubtedly, that’s a good idea. It is still too soon to call a deep change or continuity in Mexican foreign policy under President López Obrador. It is to be seen what essential changes the government includes in its National Development Plan, and how these are implemented. But one thing is for sure: AMLO masters the art of symbols and representations, his team in international affairs is showing they can deliver as well.

Zirahuen Villamar


Zirahuen Villamar is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at Freie Universität Berlin and member of the Mexican and the German councils on Foreign Relations (Comexi and DGAP, respectively). He was also Professor at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). Contact: z.villamar@fu-berlin.de Twitter: @zirahuenvn


Cover Photo: President López Obrador takes power in the Mexican Parliament, 01/12/2018 (Source: Eduardo Verdugo / AP).