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An essential reset to US-Mexico relations starts today

The world watched last month as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador pulled a figurative fake handshake and backed away from President Joe Biden’s Los Angeles invitation. President Biden’s response presents an important opportunity.

From the outset, the Biden administration has sought to reestablish the U.S.-Mexico relationship. The objective was to move it from one that is personality-based, transactional and centered around trade and migration to a more broadly focused relationship managed at the cabinet level. 

The administration has worked collaboratively and respectfully with the López Obrador administration when responding to shared challenges of pandemic recovery, climate change and migration. Mexico was one of the first countries to receive donations of COVID-19 vaccines

Facing concerns that the López Obrador administration would withhold cooperation and create additional domestic political challenges as the 2022 midterms approached, the Biden administration met frequently with Mexican officials to try to improve the operation of the Migrant Protection Protocols — known as Remain in Mexico — that were negotiated by the Trump administration. Further, the Biden administration responded cautiously to López Obrador’s proposed energy reform despite considerable pressure from U.S. stakeholders to voice commercial and environmental concerns. 

Over the past 18 months, U.S. and Mexican officials have used new or reconstituted bilateral (and trilateral) mechanisms to develop action plans to address issues affecting the two nations. Stakeholders in both countries have welcomed these efforts to achieve equitable economic growth and development and to resolve challenges such as climate change, water usage and pandemic recovery. 

While the collaborative approach has restored the institutional architecture and created an important dialogue at the cabinet level, it does not appear to have engendered similar respect on the part of López Obrador.  

López Obrador announced that he would not attend the Summit of the Americas if the Biden administration did not invite all Western hemisphere leaders — specifically those of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua — days after his April 29 virtual bilateral meeting with President Biden. When the invitations were not issued, he made good on his promise and stayed home while foreign secretary Marcelo Ebrard led the Mexican delegation.

López Obrador’s announcement coming with no advance warning to the White House is not surprising. Since President Biden took office, López Obrador has rarely demurred from commenting on U.S. domestic political issues, including the lack of congressional action on migration, U.S. and NATO support for Ukraine and the extradition of Julian Assange. 

Additionally, López Obrador blaming the failure of U.S. migration policy for the recent deaths of 51 migrants found in a trailer near San Antonio, Texas, combined with the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of the Biden administration on Remain in Mexico, will further heighten White House concerns and those of its domestic policy team. 

Simultaneously, López Obrador regularly dismisses comments by Biden administration officials and members of Congress about the murder of journalists, the suppression of independent institutions and investigations into corruption in Mexico as “interventionism” and uninformed.

Less than a month after the summit, the White House announced today’s visit. Such invitations are not extended lightly and have been less frequent in the COVID-19 era. Following López Obrador’s boycott, the visit is even more surprising as it may be interpreted as a reward — or at least a confirmation that his actions did not harm the bilateral relationship.

The meeting is expected to include discussions on migration (including human trafficking and the treatment of displaced persons), the flows of drugs and weapons between countries, opportunities to promote near-shoring to strengthen North America and climate change (including electricity reform). 

Though President Biden should not go so far as to reciprocate the fake handshake in public, he should make abundantly clear to his counterpart that U.S. security and commercial interests and our long-held democratic values are not only non-negotiable, they are as important as addressing the current migration crisis and other shared interests. Even among friends, fake handshakes are not always a joke.  

Andrew I. Rudman is the director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. A former Foreign Service officer and director of the Office of NAFTA and Inter-American Affairs at the Commerce Department, he has worked on Mexico and U.S.-Mexican relations throughout his public and private sector careers.

Tags Andrés Manuel López Obrador Climate change COVID-19 Joe Biden Marcelo Ebrard Mexico–United States border Politics of the United States Remain in Mexico US-Mexico relations

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Regular the hill posts

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