The 20th anniversary of al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on the United States was marked by a tsunami of ink on what these two decades mean to Washington’s interests and agenda in the Middle East, counterterrorism, and grand nation and global strategy. Geopolitical heft as framed by the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, little bandwidth was allocated to one binary relationship that was truly affected and transformed – both negatively and positively – as a result of the attacks.
A few days before 9/11, on Sept. 5, President George W. Bush hosted Mexican President Vicente Fox on his administration’s first state visit. Bush’s first trip abroad as president was actually to Mexico. I was then the head of the policy planning team at the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs and part of the Fox delegation. Watching the mall fireworks display that Bush organized in honor of his counterpart, Senator Joe Biden, standing behind me on the steps of the White House leading to the South Lawn, slapped me on the back and shouted, “Man, this president is doing the same to you guys!” And indeed, the relationship began. Between the two leaders, who were elected the previous year, a great start. Mexico City was rethinking priorities, Washington emphasized the paramount importance of the relationship with Mexico, and for the first time Mexico was leading the diplomatic talks by putting an ambitious agenda on the table for comprehensive immigration reform including strengthening border security measures and a temporary workers program. As for circular labor mobility, a belief that there is scope for action to dramatically change goals for an issue has spoiled the bilateral relationship (which it is to this day). Sitting in my Mexico City office after the visit and watching in disbelief and awe as the World Trade Center towers collapsed, I knew right away that this agenda would be completely reworked. What follows is a telling story of missed opportunities and opportunities gained.
What became self-evident in the weeks after the attacks was that Mexico became in many ways a victim of its own success. Up until that point, Bush – a former governor of the Texas border state who was first-hand aware of the critical importance of Mexico to the United States – had personally led the agenda with Mexico. With its attention turned to Afghanistan and the “war on terror” looming, Mexico lost the main advocate for developing a strategic bilateral relationship and for a comprehensive approach to government within the administration. As Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda relayed to Secretary of State Colin Powell in his State Department office in a one-plus-one meeting I participated in, the terrorist attacks only emphasized the importance of moving forward in discussions with Mexico, particularly regarding some form of legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants (Majority from Mexico) in the United States. As our talking points continued, it was necessary to find out who they are and where they live, and to get them out of the shadows. But our arguments fell on deaf ears.
To make matters worse, a stammering, hesitating and deaf President Fox responded to the attacks, taking the bad advice of his interior minister and chief of staff criticizing and advising against the idea of showing public solidarity with the United States during the Mexican National Congress. The Independence Day celebration on September 15 lost so much goodwill to Mexico – both in the administration and in the Capitol – that it had accumulated only a few days earlier during the state visit. Henceforth, the Fox government had difficulty adjusting to the new realities of Washington. To make matters worse, in 2003, once the United States unwisely decided to go down the path of invading Iraq—which Mexico, as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, rightly and equitably opposed, along with others. Members of the UN Security Council Instead of personally reaching out to Bush and explaining to a former partner and close friend why Mexico would vote the way it finally did, Fox decided to hide under his desk and avoid answering his American counterpart’s calls, then went to the podium as to why Mexico disobeyed US pressure and voted against Washington in the Security Council.
As much as 9/11 derailed the personal relationship between Bush and Fox and the immigration agenda, they also had a transformative effect on security cooperation, an area that had always lags behind in the tectonic shift in bilateral relations that the decision brought about a decade ago. to negotiate a free trade agreement. Since the early 1990s—and over the decades that followed—Mexico and the United States have profoundly changed their relationship. Driven first by the massive social and economic convergence brought about by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and then by the growing and more assertive security and intelligence cooperation that has arisen out of the security and border imperatives of a post-9/11 world, both countries have slowly begun to build a strategic and forward-looking partnership. On the shared responsibility, challenges and opportunities of a 2,000-mile land frontier. Moreover, the Establishment of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the reorganization of the US Unified Combatant Command architecture with the creation of Northern Command (NORTHCOM) forced Mexico to engage in a qualitatively different—albeit heavy-handed—way. This was driven by the basic realization that if the United States realized that Mexico and its porous borders could turn into a national security vulnerability exploited by terrorists, non-state actors, the trade and economic agenda, and the relationship forged since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Whole, will grind to a halt. Shared prosperity and shared security have become irreversibly intertwined, and rightly so.
This ultimately provided a partial recovery and renewed momentum and momentum to pursue a more ambitious bilateral agenda. The Department of Homeland Security has become a new and major player in the relationship and Mexico and the United States have engaged in an unprecedented level of intelligence sharing, for example sharing passenger lists of all aircraft flying in Mexican airspace and individuals on watch lists, and preventing “visa purchases” (individuals refusing visas). For the United States to try to obtain a visa to enter Canada or Mexico), and implement reliable travel programs. Military-military cooperation began to move forward, albeit slowly, to the point that after a few years, the Mexican Army, Air Force and Naval Relations were permanently deployed to NORTHCOM headquarters in Colorado Springs. Discussions about managing epidemics (which served countries well in 2009 with the H1N1 virus) or disrupting essential regional supply chains for the three North American neighbors have endured this paradigm shift.
To be sure, much more needs to happen to build on the promise of a truly strategic relationship between Mexico and the United States that the 9/11 terrorist attacks imposed on both countries. First of all, Mexico cannot continue to be an afterthought or taken for granted by US national security and foreign policy interests—as it has remained in the twenty-first century despite increased awareness of its security importance to the United States. Washington and Mexico City—and indeed Ottawa as well—need to promote awareness of the common space in North America across the board, whether it is our ongoing efforts to ensure that Mexican territory and the US-Mexico border are not used by competing nations or non-state actors to threaten or undermine homeland security. in the United States or our engagement on a whole series of fronts: transnational organized crime; electronic security; migratory flows; Energy Security, Efficiency, and Independence for North America; or water resources at the border.
The dilemma posed by 9/11 was that our two countries had to stop playing checkers and start playing chess. Twenty years after heinous attacks on American soil, a sober and honest assessment of US interests toward Mexico must be made in Washington. Mexico, in turn, needs to deal with the importance of significantly deepening and expanding security cooperation (not just in terms of law enforcement) with its northern neighbor. Our communities are truly interconnected, with millions of Mexicans and Americans abroad living in the United States and Mexico, respectively. The fallout from 9/11 forced our two countries to jointly cooperate in security and intelligence, albeit with the occasional whirlwind—and with governments on both sides of the border that did not understand this critically important, comprehensive and forward-looking agenda for engagement, strategic cooperation, and national security based on Shared responsibility model, or that even tried to torpedo the relationship itself. Leaders in Washington and Mexico City today stand at a crossroads: at stake is the security and prosperity of millions of Americans and Mexicans, and despite the challenges inherent in such an unequal relationship, more than two decades of strategic success story, diplomacy, security convergence, and greater and mutual interdependence.