Biden, López Obrador and the Precarious U.S.-Mexico Relationship

Throughout the past four years, U.S. attitudes toward Mexico have been tumultuous, defined by a slew of anti-Mexican sentiment and punctuated by widely criticized anti-immigration policies. Former President Donald Trump began his presidency on the promise to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it. He finished his term in office with the implementation of the “Remain in Mexico” program, which forced thousands of asylum seekers to await their hearings in Mexico, often in large encampments that received numerous allegations of human rights abuses.

In 2018, Mexico elected President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a left-wing populist member of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA). Although he had long been a divisive figure in Mexican politics, López Obrador entered office with an astounding 53% of the popular vote and a promise to prioritize Mexico’s sovereignty. After multiple failed presidential elections, AMLO (the popular abbreviation for López Obrador) finally achieved the highest office in Mexico on the rising tide of Mexican nationalism, which had dominated Mexican politics for a majority of its relations with the U.S. and had only subsided in the late 80s.

Americans observed Mexico’s return to nationalist tendencies with anxiety, heralding AMLO as “Mexico’s answer to Donald Trump” and anticipating exacerbated tension between the United States and its southern neighbor. However, AMLO and Donald Trump maintained a surprisingly functional, occasionally even congenial, working relationship.

In many ways, Trump and López Obrador were diametrically opposed, but one crucial shared opinion allowed the two leaders to collaborate. Trump was uniquely uninterested in intervening in Mexico’s domestic politics, and AMLO appreciated the absence of American oversight and intervention.

Donald Trump’s platform toward Mexico focused almost exclusively on issues of migration and renegotiating regional trade agreements. Trump’s approach to foreign policy, toward Mexico and many others, was unprecedentedly one-dimensional, relying on his personal business dealings rather than a multifaceted, coordinated agenda. Trump’s narrow focus allowed AMLO to pursue his own domestic agenda with less American influence.

In a recent call with newly elected President Joe Biden, AMLO said “I must mention that we do have a very good relationship with the now president of your country… Regardless of all other considerations, he respects [Mexico’s] sovereignty.”

Joe Biden’s approach to relations with Mexico is a far cry from his predecessor’s. Where Trump relied on his own personal relationships, Biden will rely on a fully appointed cabinet to manage a wide range of issues. One of the many ways in which Trump’s presidency marked a divergence from the status quo was his resistance to assemble a cabinet that could navigate the complexities of a relationship between two countries whose economies, cultures and politics are so inextricably interconnected. Biden intends to reconstruct this infrastructure of diplomacy that will allow him to tackle multiple campaign promises.

AMLO anticipates the increase in American oversight that will come with Biden’s more holistic foreign policy platform. He has already begun sending signals to the incoming American president that he will not tolerate the same amount of American influence as his predecessors. Not only was López Obrador among the last global leaders to congratulate Biden on his victory, but he has also exonerated a former Mexican defense secretary from prosecution for drug trafficking in America and granted asylum to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks who has been evading U.S. extradition since releasing thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016. Many Americans received these actions as slights to the incoming administration, but the sum of these minor affronts is a broader message: Mexico’s president intends to continue pursuing his robust domestic agenda with minimal American interference.

AMLO has championed the charge for Mexican energy independence, a goal which he has ardently pursued since he took office in 2018. An outspoken critic of his predecessor’s energy sector redesign that opened the industry to extensive privatization, López Obrador has repeatedly vowed to restore the dominance of Mexico’s state-owned electricity company.

Recent storms across Texas, a major source of Mexico’s natural gas, resulted in widespread blackouts across the northern half of Mexico. Pointing to these blackouts as evidence, AMLO argued for fortifying Mexico’s own domestic energy supply and in late February put forth a bill that would strengthen the state-owned energy program and limit the involvement of private companies in the energy industry. Ultimately, López Obrador aims to buttress Mexico’s economy from America’s political and economic influence through the centralization and nationalization of the energy industry.

AMLO’s fear that Biden’s election will spell out more roadblocks to his dream of energy independence is not unfounded. Hordes of legislators, environmental advocates and industry experts have criticized his proposed bill for violating carbon emission regulations and trade agreements. These infractions will likely attract opposition not just from his domestic opponents but also from the Biden administration.

Lourdes Melgar, a top energy official under former President Enrique Peña Nieto, said AMLO “has a nationalistic view of how to utilize resources.” Melgar and many other energy experts argue that this policy sacrifices environmental sustainability for an ideological power play. Although the bill is expected to become law within the coming days, Mexico will continue grappling to find a balance between nationalistic impulses, international cooperation, and environmental sustainability.

Unlike his predecessor, President Biden will not look the other way when it comes to violations of environmental agreements. Throughout his campaign and into the first month of his presidency, Biden has remained adamant about the need to uphold environmental protection agreements and expressed a willingness to reassert America’s role as a leader of international environmental cooperation.

According to Pamela Starr, director of the U.S.-Mexico Network at the University of Southern California, Biden should expect to ruffle some feathers when addressing Mexico’s disregard for carbon emission limits and other sustainability regulations. The new president may not necessarily care that Mexico is striving for energy independence, only considering the repercussions of the tactics employed to achieve self-sufficiency. Nevertheless, increased oversight could set off alarm bells for AMLO and others who remain skeptical of American involvement.

Starr points to Jeffrey Davidow’s metaphor for the complex relationship between the United States and Mexico, “the bear and the porcupine,” which captured the difficulties of navigating a relationship between two closely connected countries when one was overtly interventionist and the other hypersensitive to perceived intervention. This dance between American brashness and Mexican defensiveness defined their relationship until the election of Ernesto Cedillo in 1988.

AMLO has openly asserted his disapproval for his predecessors’ approach to dealing with the United States, accusing Mexico of kowtowing to American interests over the past few decades. His approach to diplomacy marks a return to the era of the porcupine, defined by Mexican nationalism and apprehension of U.S. involvement. In order to avoid returning to the role of “the bear,” the United States must carefully navigate the rising sentiment of Mexican nationalism, an endeavor further complicated by rising nationalism within its own borders. Competing threads of nationalism could cause friction not just within the realm of environmental policy, but also within negotiations of labor, trade, corruption and migration.

According to Starr, Biden’s policy toward Latin America rests on three pillars: corruption, climate change and democracy. Although the ongoing migration crisis will likely monopolize much of Biden’s first year in office, the early months of his presidency could define the timber of their relationship and define the trajectory of negotiations of the other items on his agenda in the subsequent years of his presidency.

Despite AMLO’s initial posturing, he has recently demonstrated his commitment to maintaining a productive relationship with the United States. The two leaders convened virtually to discuss issues of immigration, the pandemic and climate change, and both seemed intent on redirecting the nature of their nations’ exchange away from the blatant antagonism that defined the Trump administration. López Obrador, like many Mexicans, is relieved to work with an American president who does not openly degrade their country.

However, this relief at a return to amiability will not dissuade AMLO from fiercely protecting his plan for energy independence. The past four years have exacerbated a relationship that had been fraught with mistrust for decades. This history of unwelcome intervention and competing nationalist sentiments will guide the next four years of U.S.-Mexico relations.

Biden has already begun to dismantle Trump’s hardline anti-immigration policies, ending the “Remain in Mexico” program and working with Mexican officials to reinstate mechanisms for granting asylum to the thousands of migrants waiting at the US-Mexico border. Biden has already encountered numerous roadblocks: an SUV crash in California left 13 migrants dead and a bottleneck of migrants in encampments at the border. Recent reports predict thousands more migrants from Central America are marching toward this chokepoint, hopeful that the new administration will open more doors for their arrival.

Tensions of migration at the border continue to reverberate throughout the region. With the support of Mexican police and leadership, Guatemalan police confronted a caravan of Honduran migrants in late January in an effort to stem the flow of northbound Central Americans. As the entire region reels from the effects of widespread migration and the ongoing public health crisis, Biden will need to rely on coordination with Mexico to stabilize their shared border and eventually the region.

Constructing a productive relationship after four years of Trump’s nationalism and centuries of prior American interventionism will be no small feat, especially with a Mexican president with his own political agenda that runs counterproductive to American interests in certain sectors.


Emily Morris

Emily Morris is a junior studying International Relations and English with a minor in Spanish. She is especially interested in international environmental and sustainability policy, as well as global social movements and cultural exchange. On campus, Emily is conducting research with the Unruh Center for the Political Future and a member of Delta Phi Epsilon. Originally from Dallas, Texas, her interests include food (both cooking and eating), reading, and traveling.