Photo: A meeting between future Presidents Joe Biden and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, during the Obama administration. Source: Agencia Reforma.
On March 10, the Biden administration announced Colombia would become a major non-NATO ally (MNNA). The administration proclaimed that the United States and Colombia enjoy a “unique and close relationship.” Becoming an MNNA is a rare status only granted to some of the United States’ closest partners and allies, including Israel, Australia, Japan, and Brazil.
Riding the momentum of the Colombian designation, the U.S. should also add Mexico to its shortlist. Mexico and the U.S. have enjoyed remarkably close relations for decades, on many fronts. The two countries share one of the ten longest borders in the world, with a continuous movement of goods and people across the boundary.
Despite its interconnectedness with the United States, Mexico has yet to achieve MNNA status. This is especially surprising considering countries like Mexico and others in Latin America experienced a second Pink Tide—a wave of electoral victories for left-wing populist leaders. The swift change towards left-wing populism possibly challenges the U.S. position in its own backyard against China and Russia, its other great-power competitors in the region.
On trade, the United States and Mexico share a trilateral agreement—the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA)—with a trade balance totaling over USD $615 billion in annual exports and imports, making Mexico the U.S.’ largest trading partner. In comparison, the U.S.-Colombia trade balance sheet totaled a mere $40 billion in 2019. Trade between the United States and Mexico created about 5 million jobs in the U.S. and represents 14.5 percent of total U.S. trade as of 2022.
Thousands of American companies operate in Mexico, directly benefitting American and Mexican consumers (and companies). Designating Mexico an MNNA would serve to further these economic benefits, as it would lift many restrictions on binational trade and commerce.
The MNNA designation makes countries eligible for various benefits, including lifted restrictions on the Arms Export Control Act and shared-cost participation in Department of Defense (DoD) research and development projects. Therefore, the MNNA designation would advance trade and security cooperation between the two countries simultaneously.
Currently, U.S.-Mexico defense trade is minimal. Mexico’s law enforcement and military is vastly underequipped, but with the MNNA designation the U.S. could provide further equipment to Mexico’s security forces to confront gang violence. The MNNA would allow Mexican security forces to acquire better lethal and non-lethal equipment. Namely, Mexico could purchase U.S.-owned War Reserve Stockpiles. Moreover, Mexico would be eligible to receive military financing from the United States, perhaps helping fund President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO’s) planned increase in military salaries to tackle corruption.
The MNNA would enable Mexico to receive loans of defense material, supplies, equipment, and training from the United States. The MNNA designation would also make Mexico eligible for expedited processing of export licenses of commercial satellites and other signals technologies, assisting Mexican intelligence-collection capabilities. The drug cartels are increasingly sophisticated in their intelligence capabilities—who now regularly use armed drones and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Ultimately, the MNNA provision would put the Mexican government in a better position relative to the gangs.
In return, this designation would allow the American defense industry to further access the Mexican market, helping create jobs in the United States and spurring greater defense technological developments. Presently, Mexico does not possess any large national defense industries, which would allow American companies to fill the gap and provide Mexico with the necessary equipment to accomplish its security objectives.
With increased equipment and training, there would be less of a need for the United States to send law enforcement and military personnel to Mexico, which falls in line with the U.S.’s historical isolationism. In the past, American military incursions into Mexico have resulted in military-police and civilian deaths. In two infamous examples, direct, on-the-ground involvement led to the deaths of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Kiki Camarena in 1985 and, in 1997, Esequiel Hernández, Jr., an American citizen, who was killed by U.S. Marines. Reducing direct involvement by the United States in Mexico would also phase out America’s responsibility for civilian casualties across the border due to the War on Drugs, which would make the designation more palatable for the American public.
The MMNA designation would also make Mexico eligible for a Collective Defense Agreement (CDA), as most MMNAs gained CDAs after their designation. A CDA between Mexico and the U.S. would increase security cooperation on mutual security issues even further.
These developments would improve Mexico’s ability to counter the activities of organized criminal groups within its borders. U.S.-Mexico security cooperation has waned since the Mérida Initiative ended in 2017. The MNNA designation would help bring the two nations closer in tackling issues of mutual concern. It would also provide further momentum to Senators Rubio and Menendez’s proposed grand strategic framework for the United States in the Western Hemisphere—as mass migration, organized crime, populist authoritarianism, and poverty bubble around the continent.
Politically, this move would also help alleviate tensions between the two countries. Policymakers in both the U.S. and Mexico have expressed discontent at the current state of bilateral security cooperation. AMLO has expressed his wish to limit the DEA’s presence in Mexico and decried past American direct military involvement in Mexico. On the U.S. side, former President Donald Trump and members of his administration repeatedly expressed frustration at Mexico for not doing enough to tackle gang violence and migration.
Military trade and cooperation, as facilitated by the MNNA, would respond to issues on both sides of the international aisle. For Mexico, the MNNA would provide it with more resources to finance its military and law enforcement activities, allowing for better equipment, recruitment of staff, and capacity building to accomplish security objectives. All the while reducing the need for the United States to send law enforcement and military personnel into Mexico directly.
Still, one important question remains: Why hasn’t this been done yet? Political pressure in each country are partly to blame. During the Trump-AMLO era, either President’s supporters might have interpreted any move towards further security cooperation as a betrayal of ideological principles and past policy promises. AMLO often shared harsh rebukes of Trump administration policies, while Trump also alienated Mexican policymakers with his administration’s border wall proposal, high ICE deportations, and rhetoric regarding migrants from the southern border.
A national poll conducted this November by Mexican newspaper El Financiero showed that 64 percent of Mexicans believed that relations between Mexico and the U.S. are good or very good, with 65 percent having a positive view of President Biden. These poll results illustrate that tensions between the two countries have simmered down since the end of the Trump-AMLO era, providing a unique opportunity for the MNNA designation.
The Biden and AMLO administrations have initiated bilateral talks on security and economic issues, providing an avenue for dialogue on issues related to the MNNA status. The North American Leaders Summit resumed under Biden in November 2021, the first of its kind in five years. Leaders also reinitiated a High-Level Economic Dialogue on U.S.-Mexico relations, a welcome development. Finally, both governments jointly introduced the Bicentennial Framework in October 2021, providing additional momentum to the MNNA designation.
With the Biden administration enjoying a more productive relationship with the AMLO administration than its predecessor, now is the time for President Biden to sign the MNNA.
Joseph Bouchard is a Canadian geopolitical analyst and an intern at the Igarapé Institute in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He is a candidate in the Master of International Affairs program at the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University. His work has appeared in The Diplomat, Spheres of Influence, the NATO Association of Canada, and other outlets.