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Schizophrenia in Mexican Foreign Policy: Lopez Obrador's Government Facing the War in Ukraine

Erika Ruiz Sandoval

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shaken the international system and its actors. It has also shaken the already battered global economy, and forced a reexamination of international institutions and the scale of values on which the current liberal order is based, despite its well-known limitations.

When a crisis of this magnitude occurs, the least that is expected from major and minor players, and even from peripheral ones, is clarity in their positions, statements, and actions. Unfortunately, on this occasion, clarity has not prevailed in Mexico's attitudes, declarations, and gestures. This not only confuses its partners and increases its vulnerability, but also shows that current foreign policy is going through a severe crisis that makes one long for other times, when the country, despite having no real power, was able to navigate skillfully through turbulent waters. Thus, Mexico's current foreign policy is, at the very least, cacophonous, if not frankly schizophrenic. It has been hijacked, like all other public policies, by the group in power, so it is light years away from being a State policy that can transcend the government in office, and yet its consequences will be far-reaching.

Due to its complex history and its relative weakness in the international system, Mexico developed a foreign policy based on principles and with a strong emphasis on multilateralism. This was probably the only option it had to avoid becoming a hindrance to the great powers with which it has had its ups and downs over the centuries, but it was able to make a virtue out of weakness and become a respected actor in the international arena. Mexican diplomats, particularly multilateralists, have always stood out for their equanimity, their knowledge of international law, and their good work. They have even managed to ensure that Mexico is seen as a responsible actor on the global stage, an institution builder, and adherent to the rules. In addition to being concerned -and busy- with the best causes of humanity, from disarmament to migration.

From the very beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, when Moscow began to build up troops on the border, it was clear that all the countries in the system would have to formulate a position. Once the invasion occurred on February 24, virtually automatic response was to be expected, given that, for the first time in the complex post-Cold War years, there was a textbook case that left no room for doubt about what to say and do, based on foreign policy principles: when Russia had its troops cross the Ukrainian border, it had violated Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty, in flagrant violation of one of the main norms underpinning the international order.

However, Mexico hesitated. It did not condemn the Russian actions in the first instance, not even because it currently holds a seat on the United Nations Security Council and cannot claim that it did not have deep knowledge of the situation. There, many national and international eyebrows were already raised, unable to recognize in that motley position, of yes but no, the Mexico of foreign policy principles. After the first position and in the face of the strange reactions that this raised, the Chancellor made clarifications -not without first meeting with European ambassadors accredited in Mexico-, and finally condemned the Russian invasion, and then voted in favor of a resolution in the UN in which an urgent call was made to Russia to withdraw its military forces from Ukraine. However, that position has not been maintained with sufficient vigor and clarity, and there have been many doubts as to what exactly Mexico intends to say in the face of this international crisis.

Why is this happening? It can be said that the foreign policy of the so-called Fourth Transformation has mutated in recent months. The slogan "the best foreign policy is a good domestic policy", revealed, in addition to a profound lack of knowledge, a disdain for everything international. This disdain dominated the first three years of the six-year term, the President of the Republic has hijacked Mexico's foreign relations for domestic gain and not because of a sudden interest in international affairs. Although the foreign policy is indeed the responsibility of the Executive, with the intervention of the Senate for appointing consuls and ambassadors and for ratifying international treaties, it had usually been the preserve of the professionals of Mexican diplomacy, most of the career civil servants, who, based on the broad lines of the president in office, formulated positions and the foreign policy itself. This guaranteed the coherence, consistency, and formality of Mexican foreign policy and left Mexico's interlocutors in no doubt as to where Mexico stood.

Today, Mexico's foreign policy is the subject of "la mañanera", the president's morning press conference, where it is he who, on his knees and from his philias and phobias, elaborates Mexico's positions and makes them known to the world. It matters little that these positions are not even known to the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, who now acts more like a fire extinguisher than as Chancellor, much less to the ambassadors assigned to the countries that the President includes in his diatribes or to the staff of the Foreign Ministry with much greater knowledge of the details of each situation and the positions of the other States alluded to in his morning outburst.

The Ukrainian crisis has been no exception. While the Mexican Mission to the United Nations and, within it, the special team that is leading the Security Council, constructed the Mexican discourse and engaged in conversations with other partners to promote resolutions that would contribute to resolving the crisis or, at least, to alleviate the tragedy of the Ukrainian civilians, as was the case with France, from the National Palace the positions that had been presented to the United Nations membership were amended or, frankly, contradicted.

In addition, they have sought to use the crisis of the moment to grind the blades of the internal mill. Thus, the President has complained about why the United States has given so many funds to Ukraine and not to Central America, as he has requested, considering it one of the priorities of his government, at least in his speech. Or the Mexico-Russia Friendship Group that was installed in the Legislative, which can only be interpreted as a case of Cold War nostalgia or profound ignorance. The straw that breaks the camel's back is the April 5 headline of La Jornada, a pro-government newspaper, which reproduces Russian propaganda when speaking of the "staging" of the massacre in Bucha in Ukraine.

In the President's voice, Mexico wants "world peace" and declares itself to be "neutral", when neutrality is not a position that can be taken seriously, much less with the level of dependence Mexico has on the outside world in general and on the United States in particular, and neither if it is part of a collective security system. In addition, as already stated above, there is not much neutrality in his statements and those of his followers. Likewise, he has not agreed to join the international sanctions against Russia, an effort led by his main international partners, the United States, Canada, and the European Union, although the losses for Mexico would be minor, given that trade with that country is not vital.

In the last week, on the one hand, Mexico abstained in the vote on the resolution presented by the United States to suspend - but not expel - Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council, arguing that it will not be possible to establish negotiations with Moscow if it is removed from the international organizations. There are so few multilateral tools available to exert a minimum of political pressure, given that Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council and, therefore, has the power to veto any resolution against it. Surprisingly, it prefers not to pronounce itself either for or against pointing out Russia as guilty of violating international law by suspending it from the UN human rights body, and even more so when any conversation to put an end to the conflict would not take place within the Council, but in other instances.

On the other hand, when called by the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, to participate in a global event to raise funds for the Ukrainian victims of the conflict, the President initially replied that he could not accompany them because he had an internal tour, but that he would send the Chancellor on his behalf. In the end, the president recorded a video message for the meeting in which he considered the Russian invasion of Ukraine unacceptable, because "we have also suffered invasions from Spain, France, and the United States." While it is true that if anyone can raise their voice to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is Mexico, a country that has suffered invasions from the most powerful on multiple occasions and can be empathetic in the first person, it was not necessary to name them and even less so when they are the conveners of the meeting. In the end, the Global Citizen platform, responsible for the #StandUpForUkraine campaign disseminated the message of President López Obrador, but without the fragments in which he spoke of the invasions against Mexico or in which he said that the policy had failed to avoid war.

It would all remain one of the many anecdotes that illustrate the excesses of the Mexican presidencialismo, were it not for the fact that lives are at stake. This crisis has a thousand heads, among which are that of globalization on which Mexico made an unreserved bet and on which its model, if such a thing exists, fully depends, and the migratory crisis that we already have on the northern border, with the Ukrainians and Russians that have joined the flows of Mexicans and Central Americans. Both are necessarily related to its relations with North America and Europe, already strained by the energy counter-reform and the violations of human rights and the rule of law in Mexico.

A country that does not have great power in the international arena in relative terms depends on respect for established rules and its prestige to survive in a system that is anarchic by nature. It is time for definitions and a country like Mexico, which presumes to sit at the most important tables of the international order, claims to be a bridge between North and South, and boasts of being a member of North America, needs to have a more far-reaching vision that will allow it to guarantee its security in the years to come, which are already anticipated to be turbulent and characterized by the struggle between the great powers. Neutrality is no longer on the menu if these relations are to be preserved, nor is it possible to please everyone.

Its best bet is to put its principles, values, and national interests back on the table, and leave the formulation of foreign policy in the hands of professionals so that it reflects the Mexico of today, but also the Mexico of tomorrow, and not just the whims of whoever currently holds the presidential sash. Otherwise, we will be left alone in an increasingly hostile world, and it will no longer be the prestige of Mexican diplomacy, but the survival of the State that is at stake.

About the Author

Erika Ruiz Sandoval

Erika Ruiz Sandoval

Visiting Professor-Researcher, International Studies Division, Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) 
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Mexico Institute

The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute.   Read more