Getting U.S. Policy toward Mexico and Canada Right

The bilateral relationships between the United States, Mexico, and Canada, and the overall trilateral relationship in North America, require a permanent government coordination structure inside the U.S. government—a role that has never consistently existed. This is all the more true in a world where the United States sees China as its major global competitor. The need to consolidate relationships in North America, improve efficiency, competitiveness of trade, and ensure the most rapid health and economic recovery from Covid-19 possible is nothing short of urgent. I wrote in 2016, prior to President Trump’s election, that the United States should consider a new structure. The experience of recent years has made the case even more critical.

A North America coordinator position would need to be seated at the White House and charged with working not only with the massive federal bureaucracy, but also coordinating with state governors and municipal offices to address pressing local issues along the U.S. border. This position would not replace the role of the secretary of state, and indeed, the secretary’s role should remain central in coordinating the bilateral relationships with Mexico and Canada. The secretary of state is the primary interlocutor with foreign officials as the U.S. government lead on foreign policy. This is indisputable and should be reinforced. The wrinkle here is that Mexico and Canada policy is also largely domestic and overlaps a myriad of agencies not in the foreign policy purview, which suggests the need for a complementary, if lean, structure that bridges both sides.

The Mexico Example

It is not news to anyone that the Trump administration had an ambitious agenda with Mexico. It endeavored, and succeeded, in renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), now the United States-Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA), and broadening the political coalition in Congress on trade. At the same time, it found new ways of working with Mexico on third-country immigration. Regardless of whether one is pleased with the details of either accomplishment—and there are fair debates on both in other fora—it is hard not to conclude that this was a major feat in a four-year term.

Renegotiating the largest trading relationship in the world and finding innovative solutions on immigration policy absent action by Congress, simultaneously, pretty much bent the space-time continuum in bilateral relations. Indeed, addressing both trade and immigration required operating in multiple dimensions that influence each other across foreign and domestic policy at the same time. These two issues dominated the bilateral agenda, but also at any given time, one could have undermined the other and risked the broader Mexico agenda along with it. When President Trump tapped his senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner to coordinate policy on Mexico, and in particular to work with the key federal agencies involved in Mexico policy, Foggy Bottom had a new ally in the coordination effort, one with the reach into the domestic agencies that the leader on foreign policy simply cannot have. The bottom line from this experience is simple: it worked.

The secretary of state’s role was primary and central. The role of the White House senior adviser was also critical and in fact helped not only to prioritize Mexico and key bilateral issues among the myriad policy priorities of a White House, but also to keep the primary goals of the administration—renegotiating NAFTA and finding immigration solutions absent Congress reforming the U.S. system at home—from undermining each other. In fact, both U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and the previous Mexican foreign secretary Luis Videgaray said in public that there would not have been a new trilateral trade deal if not for Kushner’s role.

A Permanent U.S. Coordinator for North America Policy

The U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship is a unique one for both countries. On the U.S. side, the relationship with Mexico has no equal in terms of its diversity and need for almost daily care and feeding in the U.S. government hierarchy. The bilateral relationship with Canada, and the trilateral one, also carries a need for near-daily interactions and deep expertise on matters that bridge foreign and domestic policy. The U.S.-Canada bilateral relationship includes a myriad of domestic issues, including water-related matters between northern U.S. states and Canadian provinces. It is high time the U.S. government structure recognized that by virtue of land borders and the USMCA, Mexico and Canada policy is simply not like other “foreign” policy.

While the Biden administration’s approach to Mexico and Canada will undoubtedly include less brinkmanship and a more collaborative tone, it will still confront the same overall coordination challenges, including on many issues that bridge traditional foreign and domestic policy stovepipes. Six key issues will be on the front burner for the Biden administration in North America: (1) Covid-19 response and recovery, (2) the need to reimagine the bilateral security relationship with Mexico, (3) implementing the USMCA’s Rapid Response Labor Mechanism, (4) meeting the need for North American infrastructure upgrades, (5) addressing climate change, and (6) crafting a new approach on immigration. Each makes the case more urgent for a coordinator to bridge foreign and domestic policy in the United States.

It is high time the U.S. government structure recognized that by virtue of land borders and the USMCA, Mexico and Canada policy is simply not like other ‘foreign’ policy.”

The first priority out of the gate for the Biden administration will be ensuring a coordinated North American response to Covid-19, including addressing vaccine distribution, border openness, and both health-related and non-health-related supply chains. A resilient, prosperous United States requires that Mexico and Canada recover as quickly as possible. The Covid-19 response and recovery is often seen as a domestic issue in all three countries, but it involves a coordinated effort across North America. The Trump administration recognized this fact, activating existing North American health response mechanisms and providing multiple shipments of lifesaving ventilators to Mexico.

Another urgent priority for the new administration will be resetting the bilateral security relationship with Mexico in the wake of the U.S. indictment of former Mexican secretary of defense Salvador Cienfuegos, which was ultimately dropped. The bilateral outcome of the Cienfuegos case further illustrates the need for more seamless internal coordination within the U.S. government. Mexico’s response to the arrest of its former defense secretary, which appeared to catch most Mexican and many U.S. officials by surprise, was to suggest that bilateral security relations on the whole are at risk—not just the role of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, but the main coordination bilateral security mechanism, the Mérida Initiative, as well. Mérida is the most powerful embodiment of a critical idea in bilateral security relations—that is, that we are in this together and that the challenges should be addressed together in an environment of trust.

The Biden team will need to quickly convene Mexican counterparts to reimagine what Mérida is, and what it does, to rebuild trust on security cooperation. One hopes that instead of walking away from the concept of shared responsibility, both Mexico and the United States double down on it in the wake of these recent events. The two countries should turn these tensions into an opportunity to deepen cooperation and reframe Mérida in a way that modernizes it and adapts it to current realities. This too will require the balancing of foreign and domestic priorities. A myriad of U.S. agencies, covering issues from counter-narcotics policy, arms trafficking, and counterterrorism to economic development and programs for at-risk youth, in addition to Congress, will need to be involved from the conceptualization stage onward. It is a daunting task with implications for both foreign and domestic policy. Reimaging Mérida is a project tailor-made for a new office that straddles the foreign and domestic policy apparatus.

Another top issue for the Biden team will be setting a course on how the United States will implement the Rapid Response Labor Mechanism, the novel labor enforcement provision included in the USMCA largely responsible for securing bipartisan support for the deal in Congress. The administration will need to thoughtfully define what success is in terms of this new mechanism, which Congress intended to improve labor rights and collective bargaining in Mexico. As with any new enforcement tool, the devil is in the details, and effective implementation of the tool may not, in the end, imply the imposition of penalties as many seem to expect. In fact, the mechanism is a tool of bilateral dialogue in search of remedies, and one could actually argue that imposing penalties is a failure of diplomacy to find a remedy, not a measure of success. Level heads across domestic and foreign structures in the U.S. government will need to thoughtfully set this standard early on.

Perhaps the most glaring example of the need for foreign and domestic policy coordination, continuity, and focus is the issue of cross-border infrastructure. This issue should be another major priority for the next administration because it is the underpinning of the competitiveness of North America, of the successful implementation of the USMCA, and of the United States’ ability to compete with China. It is also an issue where herding the cats of foreign policy, domestic policy, federal, state, and local officials is nearly an impossible task under the existing U.S. government structure. The result is clear—the United States gets little done on cross-border infrastructure, and what it does get done happens at an embarrassingly glacial pace. Indeed, new and innovative projects do exist; one needs look no further than Otay Mesa East Port of Entry to see what the future might hold, including on public-private partnerships. But consider its timeline. The first presidential permit application for the project was approved in 2008. It was renewed in 2018, and yet there are still delays and issues with coordination, including with Mexico. President Trump made key progress with Executive Order 13867, streamlining presidential permits for cross-border infrastructure. This move was essential, but not sufficient. The Gordie Howe bridge project with Canada is another example that clearly shows the complexity of the challenge, as I also described in 2017. Cross-border infrastructure needs regular attention, and it simply does not get it within the current structure.

A top Biden priority, climate change and environment, would also benefit from a dedicated staff to work these overlapping foreign and domestic issues in North America. Water issues currently dominate the environmental space on both the northern and southern borders of the United States, as evidenced by the ongoing challenge of the Tijuana sewerage issue and its effects on Southern California as well as the complex negotiations begun in May 2018 with Canada over the renewal of the Columbia River Treaty. Biden’s focus on climate change, renewables policy, and clean energy, as well as potential changes in auto industry fuel standards and policies, is shaping up to be a central theme that will bridge foreign and domestic policy in North America and require both high-level attention and a new approach.

Last, the Biden administration will have to address the thorny issue of immigration both bilaterally with Mexico as well as regionally with Central American countries. There is probably no other issue as politically charged and sensitive. A coordinator that can straddle foreign and domestic priorities, with a great deal of nuance, is needed. The Biden administration will have to be patient and, above all, ensure that policy changes do not contribute to a migration surge via Mexico to the United States during the pandemic or otherwise. The new administration has signaled that long-term economic development in Central America, furthering the Obama-era Central America aid policy, will be part of its strategy. In the short run, however, creative diplomacy with Mexico will need to be a critical piece of the agenda as the Biden administration looks to shift its policies away from those of the Trump administration.

It is simply the case that there needs to be a person in the White House, with a small staff, whose job it is to do nothing but manage the relationships with Mexico and Canada. This high-level individual should be appointed by each new U.S. president, and the office should straddle the often-sparring foreign and domestic structures in the form of the National Security Council and the Domestic Policy Council staff. The office would need to be in lockstep with the Department of State, seamlessly coordinating with it and the foreign policy bureaucracy. The office should also be attuned to, and credible with, state governors, and it should track state-level issues on even footing with federal ones. This office would not replace the State Department but would be a force for assisting with coordination. Personalities will matter, as they always do in any interagency coordination, and the individual chosen should be one with a demonstrated track record of collaboration, experience inside the U.S. government, and whose bio does not manifest partisanship. The staff of this office should all be career officials rotated to the office from key agencies.

Above all, the goal of this new coordinator office would be to prioritize the issues that need prioritizing and to ensure one simple thing: no more surprises in the U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada relationships.

Kimberly Breier is a senior adviser (non-resident) with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. She served as assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs at the Department of State in 2018-2019.

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