Foxed In?

Though no one is likely to mistake Mexico for a Muslim country--even one of the friendly, oil-exporting ones--the United States' declaration of war on terrorism has forced its southern neighbor into a predicament not altogether different from the one faced by moderate Middle Eastern countries like Oman or Saudi Arabia. If the country's government does not actively support the U.S. coalition against terror, it risks international ostracism and alienation from America; but if it appears too eager to support U.S. ventures abroad, it risks losing political support at home. Indeed, the foreign policy of Mexico's president, Vicente Fox, which before September 11 had made a closer relationship with the United States its top priority, is now teetering atop a smoldering volcano.

For years the United States has at times treated Mexico a little like Saudi Arabia--dependent on close ties to the United States but given to theatrical gestures of defiance. Yes, the Saudis bankrolled Yasir Arafat and the PLO, but they also sold oil to America and were thought to provide a bulwark of stability in the Middle East. So the United States mostly looked the other way where the darker aspects of its foreign policy were concerned. Similarly, while Mexico was providing support to anti-American entities like Fidel Castro's government in Cuba, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the FMLN in El Salvador, Washington looked upon the Mexican government as the lesser of many possible evils and put up with its sometimes unhelpful foreign policy in the region for the sake of stability next door.

But after last year's elections brought Fox to power, he and Jorge Castañeda, his foreign minister, proclaimed that everything in Mexico was going to change, including its foreign policy. Confident of its newly won democratic legitimacy--a novel experience for a Mexican administration--the incoming government believed that it could abandon what remained of its defensive posturing toward the United States and approach its northern neighbor as a partner and ally.

Castañeda had been a Communist Party leader in his youth, an architect of Mexican strategy against U.S. policy in Central America, and his country's premier opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Now, however, he made it clear to everyone on both sides of the border--even to the satisfaction of North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, the conservative warhorse--that he had purged himself of the old anti-American radicalism. Mexican nationalism would henceforth signify not opposition to the United States but rather a determination to transform Mexico and to appeal unapologetically for American help in doing so. To this end, Fox and Castañeda set out to press for a tighter relationship than ever with Washington, audaciously charting a long-term course for the unification of North America along the lines of the European Union.

When Fox came to visit George W. Bush in Washington for a much ballyhooed state visit in the first week of September, it appeared that this course was set. Capitalizing on Bush's gushy proclamation that "the United States has no more important relationship in the world than the one we have with Mexico," Fox called for a new era of trust between neighbors and even demanded that the United States work out a troublesome migration agreement on Mexico's terms by year's end. Although they returned home without any concrete promises from their American hosts, Fox and Castañeda nonetheless returned to Mexico City in triumph for having foisted their agenda on the Bush administration.

Five days later, the terrorists struck. Castañeda rushed to solidify the pro-American policy he had established by expressing not only his government's sympathy but--in a major departure for Mexico--even support of U.S. retaliation. Glancing sideways for the anti-American sentiment that still lingered in Mexican society, he added rather hopefully that he expected the United States to strike back quickly and get it over with.

Castañeda's declaration of support for Washington as it launched a vaguely defined war on terrorism had a powerful domestic effect. Mexico's intellectuals, the left, and the old guard rose in impassioned rhetorical revolt. The cabinet openly split. Newspapers denounced the foreign minister for toeing the Yankee line, and members of congress called for his head. Even Fox ran for cover, as his already troubled modernizing agenda looked more threatened than ever. Not everyone in the Fox administration was unhappy at this turn of events. Castañeda's principal rival, Secretary of the Interior Santiago Creel, fueled the crisis with a series of increasingly aggressive "Mexico-first" pronouncements to the press. Creel's incursions into foreign policy at Castañeda's expense appealed to the main opposition parties and greatly legitimated attacks on the foreign minister.

If Castañeda had been sacrificed to appease the growing nationalist mob, it would have signaled an astonishing collapse of Mexico's new activist foreign policy. Fox ultimately stood by his embattled aide and reimposed order in the Mexican cabinet, but only after Castañeda had been mercilessly pounded for a while and then tightly reined in. A hastily arranged return to Washington and to ground zero in New York City, as well as a vaguely worded national compact between the major political parties, helped to dampen the public debate. But the foreign-policy crisis has not yet passed, nor will it anytime soon, for several reasons.

First, there has never been a consensus in Mexico in support of a substantially closer relationship with the United States such as the Fox administration and its recent predecessors have sought. Many Mexicans still resent the imposition of NAFTA, which then-President Carlos Salinas forced into approval. For almost a decade now, many Mexicans have perceived NAFTA to be a burden imposed upon them by the United States in collusion with their own president.

Another reason Mexico's dormant hostility toward the U.S. international role was so easily reawakened by President Bush's declaration of war on terrorism was that, throughout the 1990s, the U.S. war on drugs played a key role in sustaining widespread suspicion and resentment of American crusades. Many in Mexico blame the scourge of drug cartels and rampant corruption on what they perceive as the vile appetites of American society and the disastrous policies of the U.S. government. Over the past two years, as American military involvement in Colombia has deepened, the drug war has become increasingly seen as another pretext for U.S. domination and intervention in Latin America.

In some ways, the suddenly revived critique of the U.S. global role--complete with strident charges of imperialism and militarism and condemnation of every U.S. intervention--appears little changed from the Cold War, when the American policy of containment justified permanent confrontations and prolonged interventions in the region and elsewhere to prevent the putative spread of communism. But while Mexicans accuse the United States of failing to shake its Cold War mentality, it is in fact Mexican society that still behaves as if the United States were again bent upon crushing revolutionary nationalism in the third world on false pretenses. Indeed, while the U.S. press has painstakingly reconstructed the September 11 plot in chilling detail and dug ever deeper into the background story in the Middle East and Afghanistan, Mexican media has focused on U.S. saber-rattling statements and military moves while providing virtually no context.

Finally, Mexican political culture appears unable to comprehend the idea that it might actually share an enemy in common with the superpower to the north. Mexican foreign policy is built on a pacifist worldview that does not admit the existence of intractable enemies. Every country and social movement can, somehow, be accommodated--and therefore the United States' "we must vanquish our enemies" stance is anathema. This pacifist view is codified in Mexico's holy trinity of foreign policy principles--nonintervention, self-determination, peaceful resolution of conflicts--and significantly informs its domestic political practice as well. These principles, somberly intoned by Mexican leaders for decades, were ultimately enshrined in the constitution in the late 1980s, making the nation's institutionalized commitment to pacifism somewhat like Japan's.

For now, the Mexican government has settled on a mixed strategy. Fox makes occasional brief statements for U.S. consumption affirming Mexico's support for international efforts against terrorism. Mexican authorities quietly cooperate with Washington on the immigration, financial, and investigatory fronts. Meanwhile, the policy domestically seems to be to avoid the subject of support for the United States as much as possible and to keep the foreign minister effectively muzzled.

But this approach can't last very long. In a moment of hubris, Fox and Castañeda capped their state visit to Washington with an appearance before the Organization of American States in which they called for scrapping the 54-year-old Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, also known as the Rio Treaty. Declaring the treaty obsolete, Fox unilaterally set a deadline of 60 days in which to decide whether to refashion or simply to pull out altogether. Two weeks later, Castañeda found himself back in Washington awkwardly joining the pact's other 22 members in a unanimous vote to invoke the treaty (which he had just declared void) in response to the terrorist attack on the United States. Soon the 60 days will be up and Castañeda will have to explain to domestic critics what happened to Fox's deadline. What's more, there is now little prospect for the sort of bilateral immigration agreement he demanded in early September. December brings the completion of Fox's first year in office and he will have--from his critics' perspective, anyway--little to show for it.

To make matters yet more complicated, Mexico has just succeeded in winning a nonpermanent seat on the UN Security Council. When the country takes its seat in January, it will have to address issues pertaining to the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Castañeda will have to explain these positions to Mexico's media and congress.

As luck would have it, Mexico will be starting its two-year term on the Security Council at the same time that Syria--a longtime member of the official U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism--does. While that should make it easy for Mexico to look good to Americans by comparison, it dramatically underscores the domestic challenges that will come with taking a prominent place at the international table. If Castañeda and Fox are to succeed in advancing a pro-American, internationalist foreign policy--one that runs against the grain of Mexican tradition, political culture, and even constitution--they will have to be not only persistent and smart, but also lucky.