If you judged solely from his campaign, you could reasonably expect Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) to have a vocal foreign policy in clear counterpoint to the United States. He was, after all, the candidate who wrote a book entitled Oye Trump (Listen Up, Trump) outlining what was wrong with Donald Trump’s positions on Mexico and its citizens, including a comparison to Nazis. He was widely expected to take a tougher line against the Trump administration.
Thus far, however, AMLO’s foreign policy is cautious, quiet, and restrained. The unexpected shift, though, carries risks and will be difficult to maintain.
Aside from expressing his views on Trump, on the campaign trail AMLO tended to be quiet about foreign policy beyond saying he would be non-interventionist. That has held. After the election, he has refrained from insulting or otherwise riling Trump up. His Twitter feed remains the basic presidential bland, with the occasional food picture. After Trump accused Mexico of actively contributing to an “onslaught” of immigrants during his State of the Union address, AMLO simply said that he respected his point of view.
Mexico’s foreign policy has traditionally maintained its independence from the United States while avoiding direct confrontation. Since the PRI’s stranglehold on the presidency was broken in 2000, Mexican presidents have become more vocal, particularly with regard to the well-being on their citizens abroad. AMLO is walking that back.
Immigration is, of course. a pressing challenge for any Mexican or Central American head of state today. When the Trump administration pushed the “Remain in Mexico” (officially called Migration Protection Protocols) policy of requiring immigrants to wait in Mexico until their hearing, AMLO rolled over and did not complain. This is a risky approach. Border cities like Tijuana do not want migrants there long-term. Their presence creates tension at a time when Tijuana is facing its own problems with violence.
Far from antagonizing Trump, AMLO has shifted Mexico’s orientation from trying to manage the northward flow of Central Americans coming through Mexico toward finding ways to allow them to stay and work. Although Mexico’s unemployment rate is low, its informal employment is over 50 percent, which will limit the labor market’s capacity to absorb young foreign workers. As the number of migrants who stay increases, so will pressure to push back. AMLO applauded the agreement in principle for the U.S.to provide aid to Mexico and Central America for economic development, which could be a welcome development but in practice would not yield results for years. And whether or not the plan for a grand Marshall Plan for Central America will ever see the light of day is dubious.
At the same time, AMLO remains mostly muted though positive on Trump’s vaunted United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA, or T-MEC in Spanish, which has a much nicer ring to it). AMLO had representatives at the negotiations and is supportive. He does not anticipate serious problems with ratification on the Mexican side (though it will not necessarily be simple) and instead awaits the debate in the U.S. Senate, where it faces more uncertain prospects. Meanwhile, AMLO has embraced China, with his incoming Foreign Minister announcing that the Asian giant is key to AMLO’s plans for economic diversification. China showed interest, for example, in AMLO’s $8 billion “Maya Train” initiative, 1,500 kilometers of rail in southern Mexico. In this, he follows the Latin American trend of embracing Chinese money.
With the Venezuelan crisis, he is a straddler, refusing to go along either with recognizing Juan Guaidó or imposing preconditions on negotiations. He favors dialogue and non-intervention, but he does not favor one government or the other, which is the essence of Mexico’s long-standing Estrada Doctrine. Yet he wants humanitarian aid to enter the country under the auspices of the United Nations, even though Nicolás Maduro insists there is no need for it. There is, in fact, no way to take a stand on humanitarian aid in Venezuela without favoring one side. As the crisis deepens, AMLO will likely find it tougher to maintain this delicate balance and will face criticism either from the U.S. government or his own leftist base. At some point, he may face the same dilemma with Nicaragua, which he hardly mentions at all.
Contrary to expectations, AMLO is no leftist firebrand in foreign policy. He has an ambitious and contentious domestic policy agenda and his current inclination is to avoid foreign policy conflict that distracts too much from advancing those. His approval rating is a stratospheric 86 percent, so for now the strategy is working. But a number of his foreign policy audiences have opposing views and over time he will find it harder to reconcile them.
Gregory Weeks is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, University of North Carolina, Charlotte.