Asymmetry Helps

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At a conference in the Middle East on the future of the region I came upon a response to one of Mexico’s own dilemmas. This is a region that is superlatively complex, where religious, territorial and geopolitical themes are absolutely contentious and some overlap others. In one of the presentations, a conference participant from Qatar in the forum summed up his perspective in the following manner: “In the recent hearing for the nomination as U.S. Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, he mentioned Iran, Israel and China more times than Canada or Mexico. In fact, those countries were not mentioned even once”. Of course, the speaker’s commentary was directed toward showing the importance of the region for the U.S. But the discussion caused me to meditate on the implications of this statement for Mexico: Is it good or bad? In any case, what are its consequences?

If one recalls, throughout the U.S. presidential campaign of 2012, the not infrequent complaint presented itself about Mexico not being mentioned in the debates among the pre-candidates, in the debates between Obama and Romney, in the President’s inaugural speeches or in his State of the Union speech last February. Beneath the surface, the absence of Mexico is read as a slight or, simply, that Mexico is not important to them (except when they spy on the president). One problem of this way of reading into political discourse is that it entails the expectation that Mexico is dependent on them for solutions to our predicaments or that their power is so great that we are unable to do anything without their go-ahead.

It appears to me that the relevant perspective is distinct. On the one hand, not mentioning us implies that Mexico is not a quarrelsome theme in their reading and diagnosis, and even less so when compared with what is occurring in the rest of the world. Mexico is not a topic that generates discord among political parties or that merits incessant discussions and polemics. The latter does not necessarily mean that the Americans are pleased with Mexico’s situation, only that there is no controversy in this regard. Nonetheless, it is much better for Mexico not to be mentioned at all than to be ranked with North Korea or Iran, to mention two obvious cases.

On the other hand, there are nearly 200 countries in the world, and for the overwhelming majority of these the United States is their prime objective, partner and nation of interest. For each of these countries, the important thing is to achieve advancing their interests with respect to the U.S. Seen through the Americans’ lens, some countries are more important than others, but their concentration is inevitably dispersed due to such a wide demand for attention. Rome’s perspective is not the same as that of the far-flung provinces.

But the distance, and the perception (and, for many, the grievance) of asymmetry is not necessarily such that it implies the impossibility of taking action. Some time ago, Joseph Nye, Harvard professor, made mention of this situation in a reference to Cuba (I quote here from memory): “We have always believed that we have control of the situation, but you know what, in Cuba we are faced with an actor whose vision is doggedly riveted on us and who gives us a black eye time after time”. The key subject matter here is that Mexicans have frequently perceived the asymmetry of power and size (in all senses) with respect to the powerhouse to the North as a calamity, when in reality it can be an enormous opportunity. In fact, it can be a comparative advantage.

As when someone armed with a hammer sees everything in the world as nails, from the perspective of the powerful nation, everyone deserves a similar response. From this conception there have emerged schemes of economic policy as well as strategies of combating crime that are supposed to apply everywhere the same way. As in everything else, some work and other don’t. But the salient point is that the weaker nation in this relationship is not required to accept dogmatically or a-critically all of its proposals nor must a distinct perspective imply a new source of conflict.

In an asymmetric relationship, the weaker nation must define the nature of the linkage and devote itself to expediting this definition permanently and systematically. The size of the powerful nation and the diversity and dispersion of its interests demand that the smaller or less powerful nation defines the agenda and win over the larger and more powerful one. In general terms, Mexico has done precisely the opposite: we have waited for the US to set the agenda and then we have enthusiastically protested.

The great exception, and the best sample of how it should conduct itself, is the North American Free Trade Agreement. There it was Mexico that spelled out the agenda, forced Washington to respond, developed a broad and ambitious strategy for redefining the relationship and devoted itself to “selling it” outright: to its entire public, interest groups and key players.

What was most remarkable about the Mexican proposal to Washington at that moment was its deliberate withdrawal from the forms and practices of the past. Mexico did not attempt to defend the existing order, but to lever a trade deal (and, above all, one of investment) that would jump-start its own development and, in any case, to create a new order. Instead of resorting to the well-worn ploy of venturing to bring the status quo to the table, it dedicated itself to constructing a new one. More to the point, Mexico did not attempt to change the U.S. order of things, demanding modifications in its reality, but rather it aimed at transforming the Mexican economy by means of the instrument that was being negotiated. With this I do not wish to suggest that a country should not call for concrete actions by its counterpart, however powerful, but that it should choose its battles. For example, having attempted to modify the property regimen of its airlines or telecommunications industries or having tried to incorporate the issue of migration (three soar issues in Mexico) at that time and into that negotiation would have opened up so many fronts that it surely would have hampered a favorable conclusion. The point is to keenly keep the goal in sight and embark upon it, on all fronts.

Mexico’s differences with the U.S. Government are relatively minor; the significant ones pertain to special interests that defend them to the death or to groups with a political vision or ideology oriented, typically, toward recreating a now impossible past, the same for the Left as for the Right. None of this impedes that, with the suitable strategy, Mexico can advance its priorities.

In his Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes wrote that “So in the nature of man we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory. The first maketh man invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation”. The nature of countries is not very distinct. The initiatives that are undertaken should advance our development and not wait for others to impose or limit them. To each his own.

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Luis Rubio

Luis Rubio

He is a contributing editor of Reforma and his analyses and opinions often appear in major newspapers and journals in Mexico, the US and Europe (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, National Public Radio).