Theme: Mexico is seeking to re-launch its presence in Latin America by enhancing its political and commercial relations with Brazil. The two countries have different regional integration and international insertion projects, but have adopted a more pragmatic approach to their relations in order to prevent their differences from generating instability in the region.
Summary: As a result of the change of government in Mexico, in December 2006, a debate has arisen in regard to the direction of the country’s foreign policy. The new administration has announced that Mexico will turn its attention back to Latin America, and that it will strengthen its political and economic ties with a number of strategic countries, including Brazil. However, the two countries are implementing different regional and international integration projects: Mexico highlights its links with North America and the need to play an increasingly significant role in Central America, while Brazil defends its sub-regional leadership and the diversification of its areas of international influence. Mexico, in its efforts to enhance bilateral relations with Brazil, is spearheading what appears to be a shift to a more pragmatic foreign policy towards several Latin American countries (Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela, among others). Ideological differences are starting to give way to a practical readjustment in Latin American politics. Against this backdrop, a Mexico-Brazil axis might serve as a driver for Latin American integration and might contribute to generating greater stability in the region, but it has its limitations: both countries will have to share the financial costs and find a way to overcome the regional political differences deriving from the various regional integration projects.
Analysis: For some Mexican analysts, Brazil is increasingly being seen as an example for their country. Not necessarily as a model to be imitated but as a reference for what Mexico is doing and not doing in terms of its foreign policy, and what it might do according to its national project and its capabilities. Although for most analysts the relationship with Brazil is increasingly important, there is no consensus about the future of these ties. The general recommendation is to avoid confrontation and build bridges, but there are doubts as to the feasibility of strategic cooperation when there are different projects and interests in play. However, admitting these differences is also important, because recognising the reality of the situation is the first step to making progress possible in specific areas: the creation of the Mexico-Brazil Bi-National Commission, the Mexican response to the designation of Brazil as a strategic partner of the European Union (EU) and the agreements in energy, trade and migration sealed during the visit by President Lula to Mexico in early August 2007.
In Mexico, furthermore, the discussion over the future of relations with Brazil is part of a wider debate which considers the objectives and fundamental orientation of Mexican foreign policy. As regards Latin America, the administration of Felipe Calderón prefers to strengthen ties with certain South American countries as a mechanism for moving closer to the region as a whole. In particular, he is focusing his efforts on Brazil and Chile, and, to a lesser extent, on Argentina, and he is trying to achieve a peaceful co-existence with Venezuela and Cuba. However, most of the political efforts are aimed at underpinning Mexico’s presence in Central America.
The Debate on Foreign Policy in Mexico
While there are many different opinions on the way forward for Mexican foreign policy, there is one basic consensus: the decisions of the last six years were negative for the country’s international presence. Jorge Montaño, Mexico’s former Ambassador to the US, indicated that foreign policy in the last six years did not have a clearly-defined direction: ‘Widespread slovenliness, improvisation and wilfulness, rhetorical excesses (at every level)… led to the dismantling of Mexico’s presence abroad’. In the last six years, Mexico’s relations became very much more complicated both to the north and to the south of its borders. Suffice to mention a few examples: it failed in its bid to win nomination for the Mexican candidate as Secretary General of the Organisation of American States (OAS) and diplomatic relations with Chile, its main strategic partner in the region, were hampered by the absurd obstinacy of the Mexican President in obtaining the post for Mexico’s candidate. Mexico’s relationship with Brazil was portrayed several times by the President’s offices as one of increasing rivalry. With Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia, relations became problematic and tense. It is true that this was compounded by the political orientation of the governments of these countries and that in some cases the problems were triggered by very belligerent remarks, especially from the Venezuelan authorities. However, of these unnecessary episodes of friction, Mexico did not obtain any benefit, not even the recognition and backing of the US, which is what the Vicente Fox government sought.
It was precisely in its relations with the US where Mexico suffered the most. Mexico was elbowed out by China as the US’s second trade partner. For various reasons, it did not manage to reach a deal on migration with its northern neighbour, and neither could it persuade President Bush’s government of the political costs in terms of bilateral relations of the construction of a wall along the border. Mexico did not manage to create the security conditions in the border region to ensure the launch of a bilateral ‘intelligent border’ agreement, among many other issues. Perhaps this state of affairs was compounded by the fact that the Fox government was unable to win back the confidence of the political elite in the US following its slow reaction in the wake of 9/11 and after its decision in 2001 to denounce the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (commonly known as the Rio Treaty), which amazed the Bush government.
After the change of government, in December 2006, there was a flurry of debate regarding the future of Mexico’s foreign policy. Raúl Benítez Manaut has talked of a struggle between realists (pragmatists) and idealists (normativists). The former emphasised the economic links with the US as the decisive variable for constituting a North American Community, taking better advantage of relations with Washington and not focusing dialogue on migration and security issues. The second group proposed a diversification of priorities in relations so as to offset the dependence on the US: more links with Europe and Asia, but especially a new kind of multilateralism, working closely with other Latin American countries.
Calderón’s government highlights the need to reconfigure Mexico’s international presence, often indicating that it wants to see more Mexico in the world and more world in Mexico. And this need is based on the recognition that during the previous government of the National Action Party (PAN), fundamental mistakes were made in foreign policy. In a speech to the Mexican diplomatic corps in January 2007, Calderón asserted that it was necessary to recover spheres of debate and cooperation, and to strengthen strategic alliances. The Mexican Foreign Minister, Patricia Espinosa, put it more bluntly in a presentation to Parliament last February: ‘Mexico has lost international presence and power of interlocution’; and the country’s capacities do not correspond to its current weighting on the international scene.
Calderón is striving to clarify his vision of Mexico and the role which he believes it should play in the world: ‘Mexico, a country which is proud to be Latin American and located in North America’; Mexico, a ‘bridge country’, source of consensus and balance, especially in Latin America. The foreign policy discourse of the new administration proposes that Mexico should turn its attention back to Latin America, and to this end that it should strengthen two strategic relations: with Chile and Brazil. And progress has already been made in this connection. More than a year ago, a Strategic Partnership Agreement was signed with Chile which has just come into force and which must be further strengthened. With Brazil, in early 2007, and at Mexico’s behest, a Bi-National Commission was set up to strengthen relations between the two countries. When Lula visited Mexico in early August 2007, a number of energy cooperation agreements were consolidated (bio-fuels and deep-water oil prospecting), as well as trade exchanges and the control of illegal immigration, and fast-track visa processing (since 2005 Mexico has been requiring a visa due to the huge increase in the number of Brazilians illegally entering the US via the Mexican border), among other issues.
However, the initiatives implemented by the new government have not been free of criticism. Rafael Fernández de Castro, a well-known academic and foreign policy analyst, points out that almost one year after reaching power, the new government does not have a road-map clarifying in which direction Mexican foreign policy will move in the next few years. According to this analyst, apart from the official speeches, the new government’s responses have been, at best, ambivalent. Jorge Castañeda, the Mexican Foreign Minister during the first Fox Government, indicated that Calderón’s pro-Latin American discourse is a return to the policies of the PRI, since it is pure rhetoric without specific content. Other analysts say that nothing significant is going to happen in Mexico’s relationship with Latin America, except perhaps closer ties with Central America, since domestic problems (insecurity, tax reform, development of infrastructure) are the priorities for the current administration.
However, the strategy of improving relations with Latin America is already bearing fruit for the Calderón administration. Recent visits to meet Mexico’s conservative government by a number of more or less left-wing Latin American Presidents have not gone unnoticed. Between January and August 2007, Michelle Bachelet, Daniel Ortega, Néstor Kirchner and Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva have all visited Mexico. This ‘wave of left-wing visits’ has not been well received by some sectors of the Mexican left, who consider that Calderón’s government is seeking to obtain a legitimacy which they do not afford him. In mid-August, the Venezuelan government announced that it was sending a top Ambassador to Mexico, and Mexico announced a similar reciprocal move, which gave a new boost to relations that had deteriorated to the point where the Ambassadors had been withdrawn during the last administration. It is worth briefly looking at how Argentina has reacted, since, looking northwards, it is hoping to secure a new role in Latin America: building bridges between antagonistic governments and positioning itself as a country which can talk to left- and right-wing governments, which is why it is seeking to enter a new phase of relations with Mexico by establishing personal ties between Cristina Kirchner and Calderón.
The Debate about Brazil in Mexico
Mexican specialists debate about whether Brazil should be a partner or a competitor (whose strength should be offset) for Mexico. If Brazil’s Latin American policy is to establish a pole of South American power in the Western Hemisphere, Mexico should decide whether this plan suits its interests or not. Brazil’s foreign policy is more ambitious than Mexico’s, since it aspires to attain an independent leadership in Latin America and in a number of international forums. Brazil does not plan to tie its economic future to the US, as Mexico has done, which has lead it to make a series of multilateral economic decisions based on concepts that are different from those of Mexico, and this could generate significant conflicts in their bilateral relations.
In early 2002, Peter Hakim, President of the Inter-American Dialogue, published an article in Foreign Affairs titled ‘Two Ways to go Global’, in which he proposed that Brazil and Mexico had different international integration agendas deriving from three different elements: their geographical distance from the US, their domestic politics and their national projects. Perhaps the most significant proposal is the distinction which Hakim makes between the two national projects, or two different concepts of country. Unlike Brazil, he argues, in Mexico there is no vocation to be a regional leader.
Mexico’s foreign policy has traditionally been more defensive and ideological. But in addition to this there is a lack of internal consensus regarding the kind of international role which the country should play. Although in general the need is perceived for a more central role, it is not clear what instruments should be used. In this international insertion model, according to Hakim, there would not be global interests, but regional ones, and there is no explicit desire to be a global player. In the Mexican model, material capacities are not so decisive and, for example, the Armed Forces do not occupy a significant position in the projection of national power. Lastly, for Mexico, geographical location is crucial, which is why in the last 10 years most of the political and economic elite have opted to link the country’s economic future to the US.
Brazil’s foreign policy is more practical and based on a consensus regarding certain objectives (greater international presence and influence), although perhaps not on the specific mechanisms to achieve them. Again according to Hakim, there is an international insertion model with global interests and a broad agenda, with a desire (although sometimes not very explicit) to consolidate its regional and international leadership. In this model, extra-regional alliances are important (for example, Brazil’s support for the group of countries known as ‘IBSA’ –India, Brazil and South Africa–), and material capacities are fundamental. The Armed Forces play a major role in projecting Brazil’s military power, as made evident recently when it was announced that in 10 years it would possibly have a nuclear submarine.
A few days before visiting Mexico, in early August, Lula published an article in the Mexican press in which he referred to Brazil and Mexico as two countries which must share objectives and aspirations, as fundamental players on the increasingly complex global stage. Two important countries which, according to President Lula, should accept their responsibilities in attaining a new consensus internationally. Without directly alluding to it, Lula was promoting the idea of a ‘medium-sized power’ for both countries. In theory, medium-sized powers tend to implement foreign policy which fosters mediation and stabilisation of the international order, particularly via cooperation and multilateral initiatives which seek to solve global problems. In other words, medium-sized powers are supposed to be ‘fine, upstanding citizens’ of the international community. The classic example is Canada. However, in the cases of Brazil and Mexico, they are two ‘emerging medium-sized powers’: both are semi-peripheral countries, materially unequal, recently democratised and with significant regional influence, who opt for gradual change, show strong regional orientation and foster regional integration, but seek to build identities different from those of the weak States in their region.
In Mexico, a number of diplomats consider that the country is a medium-sized power which is frightened to accept this role, an argument that was ratified by a recent opinion poll. In 2006, the Centre for Economic Research and Teaching (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, CIDE) and the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (Consejo Mexicano de Asuntos Internacionales, COMEXI) conducted a survey on Mexican people’s opinions, orientations, values and general attitudes towards the world. One of the most important findings of this survey (Mexico y el Mundo 2006: opinión pública y política exterior en Mexico) was that Mexicans do not aspire to being regional leaders; this applies to both the political elites and the public in general. Most of the population believes that Mexico should cooperate with other Latin American countries to resolve regional problems, but without seeking any kind of leadership (59%); only one in five Mexicans consider that Mexico should spearhead efforts in this regard; and a small minority (13%) thinks that it should steer clear of Latin American problems. According to the findings of the survey, Mexicans want their country to be a bridge between the partners of the north and the friends of the south; they do not want to take on leadership or engage in unilateral action.
The same survey asked about the kind of feelings Mexicans have towards various countries, including Brazil. The majority (53%) answered that they see it more like a friend than a partner (30%). It is interesting that only 4% of the population in general feel any rivalry towards Brazil, since this is the only Latin American country which competes with Mexico in terms of population and economic clout. However, this percentage rises when the perceptions of the general population are separated from those of the political and economic elites; in these latter sectors, Brazil is perceived as a rival of Mexico by almost one in four of those surveyed. Despite the differences between the two governments in the manner of interpreting the international scenario and the way of protecting and upholding their country’s interests, Mexico’s political elite recognises that it is necessary to establish more solid links.
The Bi-National Commission: The Most Significant Step Forward in Recent Years
At the end of March 2007 an agreement was reached to create a Mexico-Brazil Bi-National Commission. The aim of this commission, proposed by Mexico, is to institutionalise a fundamental relationship in Latin America. Brazil’s acceptance of the proposal reflects the joint perception that it is necessary to build bridges, and, as far as possible, find common ground. Perhaps the most important point is that both countries mutually recognise their importance in the world-wide and regional spheres. Although this may seem like a small detail, it is not, because only after admitting that they share responsibility regarding the future of Latin America, and regarding the weighting which the region might acquire in international forums, will they be able to build joint positions and lines of action.
Both governments consider that an improvement in their relations can have a positive knock-on effect in the rest of Latin America and that greater cooperation between them can help generate more stability and peace in the region. Perhaps for some Latin American governments the view which Brazil and Mexico hold of themselves might seem excessive, but it is clear that both countries can seek ways of cooperating to improve the future of the less privileged areas of the continent.
As for Mexico’s relations with MERCOSUR, the idea of entering it as a full partner has given way to a more realistic vision of the prospects for Mexico’s relations with this bloc. Mexico has announced that it will limit itself to maintaining its status as an observer, among other reasons because with the possible inclusion of Venezuela it would be almost impossible for Mexico to join, and because the integration model upheld by MERCOSUR is not in line with Mexico’s interests. Furthermore, the political usefulness of belonging to this bloc is not entirely clear in Mexico. Brazil, which was not apparently very comfortable with the Mexican initiative, also thinks that it is possible to seek synergies between the various regional integration systems which are not necessarily compatible.
Lastly, it is worth emphasising the commitment of the governments of Brazil and Mexico to improving the agreements and coordination for adopting common positions in multilateral forums (OAS, Rio Group, Latin American and Caribbean Summits, European Union, ALCUE, the so-called G5 –Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa– and the United Nations). At the last bilateral meetings there has been no mention of ‘BRICS’ (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), probably due to the total rejection thereof by major segments of the Mexican government, precisely because Mexico is not included in this group of emerging countries.
Brazil as a Strategic Partner of the EU: Mexico’s View
For some Mexican observers of relations between Europe and Latin America, Brazil’s recent recognition as a strategic partner of the EU has perhaps come too late, considering that Mexico obtained that status through an agreement on economic association and political dialogue signed in 1997. What concerns Mexico is how to boost its competitiveness in order to better position itself at the regional and global level, and to foster a consensus with Brazil to take advantage of the synergies of a more dynamic bilateral relationship.
Despite being a strategic partner of the EU, Brazil has not signed an Association Agreement like Chile and Mexico have, and there is every indication that it will not do so soon. Since 1995, a similar agreement is being negotiated with MERCOSUR, and the negotiation will not necessarily be helped by the new EU-Brazil agreement. Furthermore, this new status vis-à-vis the EU might complicate its relations with its MERCOSUR partners, especially Argentina, which is seeking (via the diplomatic efforts of the Kirchners) a new status in Latin America which will afford it greater political independence from Brazil and greater economic independence from Venezuela.
It also remains to be seen what content will be given to the strategic relationship between the EU and Brazil. Brazil should take note of Mexico’s relationship with the EU in its bid to build a political alliance, since Mexico’s experience has not been very successful. Obviously, there are differences between the two countries, but the scant results for Mexico should serve as an example to Brazil of what not to do. And it should also be admitted that the economic agreement between the EU and Mexico has not been well exploited by Mexico, since without a similar agreement Brazil has a more substantial trade relationship with the EU than Mexico does.
It is obvious that Brazil and Mexico, two medium-sized emerging powers, have a lot to learn from European integration. Specifically, there are many lessons to be learnt from the commitment of France and Germany to resolving their differences and developing a national policy in which European integration is a priority, regardless of which party is in power at any given time and the differences between them. The Franco-German commitment was based on the recognition that the conflict between the two countries had to be overcome, and of course this does not mean that previous experience of significant conflict is necessary for Brazil and Mexico to recognise the importance of developing basic consensus to afford clarity and stability to their bilateral relations. Furthermore, the two countries are the only ones in Latin America which, due to the magnitude of their economies, density of population and size of their territories are candidates to become the growth and integration drivers of the region.
Towards a New Kind of Latin American Pragmatism?
Are we heading towards greater pragmatism in Latin American international policy? Apparently many regional leaders are starting to realise that the ideological disputes of recent years have achieved very little. And they may be about to stop emphasising the differences and start fostering a less ideological approach to Latin American problems. The recent initiatives to re-launch Mexico’s presence in Latin America, and the presence of Brazil and other countries in the north of the continent, are evidence of this shift.
For Mexico, Brazil is today more a friend than a partner. It is obvious that the huge geographical distance between them shapes the concept each society has of the other. However, Brazil and Mexico are overcoming their fears and suspicions and are giving their bilateral relations more priority. They might be able to achieve a level of cooperation which would boost overall regional stability. Both governments share a common aim, namely that the different positions (for example, whether or not Brazil should become a permanent member of the UN Security Council) do not prevent them from achieving basic consensus on the main problems on the global agenda, regarding integration in Latin America or the best way to boost the bilateral relationship. In this regard, it is significant that Calderón received the visit of the President of Argentina before Lula and that Lula visited Central America to promote bio-fuels and other investment initiatives, since these events indicate apparent consensus between Mexico and Brazil in respect of the fact that it is possible to be flexible in supposedly exclusive areas of influence.
For Calderón’s government, in the next few years one of the main challenges facing Latin America will be building trust in various South American countries towards Mexico. For various political and economic sectors, any link with Mexico generates suspicion, because it is considered the ‘Trojan Horse’, which carries NAFTA, the US instrument to control MERCOSUR, in its interior. And the lack of agreement between the members of MERCOSUR creates even more uncertainty. While Brazil wants Mexico to move closer to the bloc, Argentina wants it to be a member. The most feasible option is that Mexico will move closer to MERCOSUR, like Chile has: going from an observer to an associate member, but in the medium term, not now. Mexico’s political, economic, commercial and security interests will continue to focus on the north of the continent. However, it is clear that it will seek to augment its political influence towards the south. For this latter purpose, the ‘traditional’ image of neutrality of Mexican diplomacy would have to change, at least towards a more active neutrality.
Lula’s trip to Mexico in August 2007 was billed as politically significant by the Latin American press, because it meant the reactivation of a strategic political alliance between the medium-sized emerging powers in Latin America. However, there are obvious limits to the pragmatic idea of a Mexican-Brazilian axis. During the 1960s, the French President Charles De Gaulle conceived of a sharing of tasks in the process of European integration whereby France would contribute the political weighting and Germany the economic weighting. Translated to Latin America, such a strategy would be difficult for Brazil and Mexico; at all events, they could share the economic costs and seek to overcome the political differences deriving from the various integration projects in their sights.
Juan Pablo Soriano
Associate Professor of International Relations, Barcelona’s Universidad Autónoma