“Progress is realization of utopia”, so believed Oscar Wilde. Utopia is no flight of infancy; it is the roadmap of the future and the lifeblood of societal change.
A member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the third richest country in Latin America in PPT per capita terms, Mexico indubitably is a rising middle power. But it does not behave like one. It often pursues atypical foreign policy. At times its foreign policy behaviour is one of principled pragmatism, at others it appears as what London’s influential Economist magazine calls “erratic and unprincipled.” It would be unfair to describe Mexico’s foreign policy under President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) as enigmatic.
Mexico is what Gunther Maihold of Frei Universitat, Berlin calls a “wannabe leading power.” Despite his leftist credentials, President AMLO seems content with Mexico remaining a reluctant middle power. The reasons are not hard to find. Mexican foreign policy expert Olga Pellicer de Brody provides the answer to this puzzle. She argues that a major obstacle for “an improved Mexican position in international politics” has been “the difficulty of defining the country’s specific regional identity as a northwardgazing country or as an outstanding Latin American leader.”
Mexico has been described as a future fifth power by a study carried out by Goldman Sachs. Currently, Mexico lags behind China, India, Brazil and Russia, but by 2040 it will become the fifth largest economic power. It has overtaken China as the leading source of goods imported to the US. Now it has become a supply chain reshoring leader. President AMLO’s pragmatism is understandable.
The return of geopolitics portends a rocky road for foreign policy and international cooperation which have always depended on convergence of great power interests. Global politics is at the crossroads. Rising multipolarity, harder solutions, institutional inertia, and institutional fragmentation characterise the contemporary world. AMLO has thus created a new foreign policy narrative which flows from Mexico being a “bi-regional nation.” Mexico is anchored economically in North America while historically and culturally it remains Latin American.
According to a survey conducted by Centro de Investigacion Y Docencia Economicas, 44 per cent of Mexicans consider it most appropriate for the country to participate in the region with other countries without the pretention to become a leader. President AMLO has said again and again that “the best foreign policy is domestic policy.” Perhaps that explains why AMLO hardly goes abroad unlike his predecessors.
He is yet to undertake a visit outside the Americas. Before travelling to San Francisco in November 2023 to participate in the APEC Summit, he said that “it’s going to be, like, you arrive a day before, sleep, participate, eat ~ and come home.” He is into the sixth year of the presidency and he was out of Mexico only on six occasions. President AMLO sees himself in the mould of legendary President Benito Juarez and not so much as a Latin American leftist. He has himself admitted that “would like to go down in history (as) what Juarez, ‘benemerito de las Americas’ (distinguished Latin American) did.” Explaining what AMLO sees in Juarez, renowned historian Lorenzo Meyer says that “he sees a political leader with a task that is almost impossible.”
Another historian Maria de los Angeles Magdaleno contends that while Juarez was for a strict separation of state from church, AMLO occasionally visits the church to present his “cartilla moral” (moral handbook). More significantly, Mexico under AMLO’s leadership has taken a lead in feminising foreign policy. On the Feminist Foreign Policy Index, Mexico ranks in the top three countries, along with Sweden and Norway. Feminist foreign policy has raised the profile of Mexico’s international leadership on gender.
Feminist foreign policy has gone a long way in reducing gender gaps. It encompasses a gender perspective and a feminist agenda abroad, parity within the Foreign Ministry, visible equality and feminism in all areas of foreign ministry. About half of the cabinet and members of Congress are female. It is also replicated at lower levels of government and officials. Currently, Mexico is in the midst of elections.
The next President will be a woman as the two candidates of the leading political parties are women. It will be a first in Mexico though Chile, Costa Rica, Brazil, Argentina, Nicaragua, Panama and Honduras have had women presidents. Mexico has its own share of problems. The drug-related gang war, attacks of critical media and the overall security challenges continue to bedevil AMLO’s presidency. His periodic denouncement of critics including the media persons in his morning press conferences hasn’t gone down well with many. AMLO’s policy to stop Central American migrants at Mexico’s southern border may be a pragmatic move to avoid new US tariffs. But it poses a big moral dilemma.
Today labour attaches posted in the American embassy monitor if Mexico complies with the new labour regulations. It would have been unimaginable in the past. His mercurial style has its own litany of critics. Not everyone likes his denunciations of critics as a “corrupt neoliberal elite”, accused of working against what he calls “ordinary Mexicans.” Gideon Rachman of Financial Times has maintained that AMLO has “undermined key state institutions, driving out independent civil servants, promoting loyalists…and denouncing judges who displease him.”
The much-hyped ‘Tren Maya’ too has incurred criticism from many quarters. As part of President AMLO’s fourth transformation, ‘Tren Maya’ covers five states connecting beach resorts to ancient Mayan sites of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Those who oppose the project call it an imposition on the indigenous people. Environmentalists are concerned the tracks will cut through virgin forest and jaguar habitats. The most vocal opponents are of course the Zapatistas. President AMLO is among few global leaders who continue to maintain a very high approval rating of over 60 per cent. Not just his leftist credentials but also his austere style have kept his popular image. He has cut down his salary and he travels only in economy class.
Mexican novelist and essayist Jorge Volpi says that though President AMLO portrays himself “as a radical progressive”, his policies have “benefited the country’s wealthiest business interests”. He is not a “textbook populist” like Hugo Chavez and Donald Trump but he is also not like “any democratic leader.” All said, bringing peace in the drug war and eliminating the power mafia that AMLO promised in 2018 remain a work in progress. It may not be Mexico’s hour. But it is certainly AMLO’s hour. He easily wins the battle of public opinion.
(The writer is director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi)