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Why talks between US, Mexico face new strains

Sandra Weiss
July 11, 2022

Mexican leader Lopez Obrador travels to the US on Tuesday for talks with President Biden, centered on migration and drug trafficking. But, there's little chemistry between the two leaders.

Manuel Lopez Obrador and Joe Biden in 2021
Disagreements over trade, foreign policy, energy and climate change have soured ties between the US and MexicoImage: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Relations between the Mexican and US governments are not at their best. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's energy reform threatens billions of dollars of US investment in renewable energy.

Five weeks ago, Lopez Obrador snubbed an invitation to the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, which the US government had sought to use to reinvigorate its relationship with Latin America.

A week ago, Lopez expressed support for Julian Assange. He has said that if the whistleblower is imprisoned in the US, the Statue of Liberty in New York should be dismantled and returned to France.

Other heads of state would face serious criticism for such slights, which have fanned diplomatic tensions. Instead, Lopez Obrador received an invitation to Washington. On Tuesday, the 68-year-old is to meet with the 79-year-old US President Joe Biden.

Mexico and the US are free-trade partners and need each other to tackle global challenges ranging from migration to supply chains to drug trafficking.

Little talent, poor strategy

Experts, however, expect little new from the meeting. That's because there's not much chemistry between the two leaders. 

 "Lopez Obrador got along better with [Biden's predecessor] Donald Trump," Rodrigo Montes de Oca of the Baker Institute Center for the US and Mexico told DW. "I see no political will to improve the relationship on the part of Mexico, there is poor strategy on the part of the US and little diplomatic talent on either side," he said.

In addition, both leaders are eyeing their own domestic priorities. For Biden, these are the midterm elections for Congress in the fall; Mexico's president is already campaigning for his successor in 2024 and hopes to score points with US bashing in the absence of any concrete results when it comes to economic and security policy.

Migration in shadow of domestic politics

"The defining issue in bilateral relations is migration,"Lila Abed, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the US think tank Wilson Center, told DW.

Migrants in southern Mexico walking to reach the southern US border
The US has seen a record influx of migrants at its southern border, prompting criticism of the Biden administrationImage: Quetzalli Nicte-Ha/Reuters

"Migration is a danger for Biden ahead of the midterm elections because the Republicans will try to wrest control of Congress from him on this issue.” Biden, she said, needs an agreement with Mexico and Lopez Obrador, in turn, knows that Mexico holds the key to the US southern border

In exchange for sealing off the border, Lopez Obrador is asking the US to increase the number of temporary work visas it grants to Mexican workers. The Mexican leader also wants financial support for the integration of migrants who do not make it to the United States and remain in Mexico. He wants to invest the money primarily in the structurally weaker south, his voter stronghold.

Bad image, trust in short supply

Domestic policy is what both leaders are primarily concerned with when it comes to migration. Abed expects an agreement of some kind on the issue, but whether it will be implemented is another matter, she added.

"Both work visas and more money require the approval of the US Congress," Montes de Oca said. "And Lopez Obrador has a very bad image among congressmen and senators in the US."

That has mostly to do with the energy counter-reform, and with further violations of the Joint Free Trade Agreement. But, also with problems in cooperation on security issues.

Lopez Obrador has backed away from military confrontation with the cartels and expelled numerous units of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

"This has eroded trust," Abed said. "For the US, curbing drug trafficking is a priority; for Mexico, curbing arms trafficking is a priority. But the only way to address these two challenges is to work together."

A burnt truck in Mexico
Mexico has been racked by violent drug-related crime as cartels fight each other and the government cracks down on traffickersImage: Jacob Garcia/REUTERS

‘Few concrete results'

All in all, Montes de Oca is skeptical about the meeting: "I expect pure rhetoric and few concrete results," he said.

It would not be the first time that Lopez Obrador told the US what it wanted to hear and then explained that he had not meant it that way. That happened during a visit of the US special envoy for climate protection, John Kerry. But it is unclear whether this ploy will work again.

Migrants stuck in limbo in Mexico

"The US definitely has possibilities to put pressure on the Mexican economy and thus also on the president via the free trade agreement," Abed said.

Even if the two presidents fail to gel with each other, the two countries are linked in so many ways that collaboration at the cultural, academic, economic and administrative levels will continue to take its usual course.

Such collaboration became less important under Trump's personalized form of foreign policy carried out on Twitter.

"Under Biden, however, bilateral policy has become more institutional again," Abed says.

This article was originally written in German.