Elephants in the Room

Why Mexico’s Foreign Policy is About to Turn Left

If populism sweeps to power in Mexico, the country's foreign policy will return to the 1930s.

View of supporters of Mexican presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, during a campaign rally in Texcoco, state of Mexico. (Alfredo Estrella/AFP)
View of supporters of Mexican presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, during a campaign rally in Texcoco, state of Mexico. (Alfredo Estrella/AFP)

Mexican foreign policy over the last two decades has been increasingly open and engaged with the region and the world. But if Mexicans pick Andrés Manuel López Obrador, popularly known as AMLO, as their next president in less than two weeks, as the polls seem to indicate they will, then the country’s foreign policy could take a sharp turn to the left — and relations with the United States could fall into new depths.

López Obrador is likely to name as his foreign minister 73-year-old Héctor Vasconcelos, a former diplomat, a classical pianist, and an international relations dinosaur. The son of a famous writer, José Vasconcelos, and a renowned pianist, Esperanza Cruz, the Harvard University-trained political scientist brings a cultured touch to López Obrador’s National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), the populist left-wing party that now dominates the Mexican polls. He has written three books on classical music, served as the director of the International Cervantino Festival, and was the first executive secretary of Mexico’s National Fund for Culture and Arts. In 1985, he received a King of Spain International Journalism Award for a television series on Mexican culture.

He also represents a direct link to Mexico’s revolutionary past. His father — who was born in 1882 and was already in his 60s when Vasconcelos himself was born — was active in the Mexican revolution of 1910 to 1920 and later became Mexico’s secretary of education. By the mid-1940s, when Vasconcelos was born, his father’s household was where aging revolutionaries gathered to talk of the glory days.

For Vasconcelos, with advanced degrees in political science and international relations from the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, it was only a matter of time before one of Mexico’s most famous sons was pulled into public service. He served as Mexico’s consul general in Boston and as ambassador to Denmark, Norway, and Iceland.

A member of Mexico’s cultural elite, Vasconcelos is no stranger to politics. He was López Obrador’s shadow foreign minister during the candidate’s extended pretense that he was the “real” Mexican leader following his refusal to accept defeat in the 2006 presidential election. Vasconcelos also served on the Committee of Intellectuals for López Obrador’s MORENA party. In 2015, Vasconcelos unsuccessfully ran as MORENA’s congressional candidate for a seat in the wealthy Mexico City neighborhoods of Polanco and Las Lomas.

Vasconcelos, not surprisingly, is a leftist. Some of his views are a throwback to the 1930s, when Genaro Estrada, Mexico’s foreign minister, decided “noninterventionism” was the guiding principle of its foreign policy. The doctrine could be summed up, in the words of Pope Francis, as, “Who are we to judge?” What countries do inside their borders, so the argument runs, is their business. Earlier this year, Vasconcelos said Mexico under López Obrador wouldn’t be involved in commenting on the internal politics of Cuba or Venezuela. Last month, he said he wouldn’t have signed the recent Lima Group condemnation of the Venezuelan dictatorship, which was ratified by Mexico and 13 other countries.

This pivot to the past has drawn strong criticism from human rights advocates. José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch said the positions espoused by López Obrador and Vasconcelos would “undermine the credibility of Mexico in the international community” by ignoring “Mexico’s obligation to protect human rights in the world.” Vasconcelos has insisted that a López Obrador government would “without a doubt maintain a major emphasis on the defense of human rights.” Asked specifically about Cuba earlier this year, he unconvincingly attempted to reconcile the two positions: “We don’t seek to intervene in specific situations somewhere in the world, although we maintain the universal value of human rights.”

On other issues, such as relations with the United States and bilateral security cooperation, Vasconcelos sounds less prehistoric. Citing the “geographic fate” of Mexico’s location, he conceded in a March interview that “the United States has been and will continue to be, in everything that one can imagine, the most important country.” Nevertheless, Vasconcelos would move quickly to reach out to other countries (“not just China or the European Union”) such as India, South Africa, and others in Latin America.

On the fight against drugs, Vasconcelos believes Mexico needs an “in-depth debate” to determine a better strategy. Mexico should “rethink the possibility of eventually legalizing, in a well-regulated, rational manner, the consumption of certain drugs to eliminate the atmosphere of near-civil war we have in many regions.” In combination with López Obrador’s statement last December that he was considering an “amnesty” for cartel leaders, which caused alarm among U.S. policymakers, Vasconcelos’s comments may signal a reduced Mexican willingness to re-enlist in the U.S. war against drugs.

The current foreign minister, Luis Videgaray Caso, is in frequent contact with U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, and both have kept the U.S.-Mexico relationship from imploding. If López Obrador wins on July 1, Vasconcelos would be smart to reach out to Kushner as soon as possible. Perhaps the 73-year-old son of a Mexican revolutionary hero will get along just fine with the 37-year-old son-in-law of a man whose experience with Mexican history is limited to eating Trump Tower taco bowls. In the short run, one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world may depend on it.

Richard G. Miles is the director of the U.S.-Mexico Futures Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. From 2007 to 2008, he handled Mexican affairs on the U.S. National Security Council staff.