On July 1, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly called AMLO, won the presidency of Mexico. What does his election mean for relationships between the U.S. and Mexico? What should it mean? There is much agreement on the first question: the outlook is troubled at best. There is little agreement on the second question, of what the United States’ relationship to Mexico should be. But though there is much to fear, there are some reasons to think that AMLO’s election may provide opportunities for both countries to do a better job of fulfilling their special obligations to each other, and to their people. Those opportunities are worth pursuing.
The reasons for pessimism are clear. Trump, a right-wing candidate, has persistently denounced both Mexican immigrants and NAFTA, the major trade deal involving the U.S. and Mexico as well as Canada. More broadly, he has offered an “America First” vision of national identity and purpose that gives clear priority to the United States “winning” in its dealings with all other countries. AMLO, a left-wing candidate, repeatedly asserted he, like all the other candidates for Mexico’s presidency, would not allow his nation to be bullied or bilked by Trump. Both men have frequently promised to advance their nation’s interests, without expressing any sense of obligation to engage in any mutual aid.
Yet they have other things in common. Both ran as populists against political establishments they portrayed as massively corrupt. Both decried economic hardships that they attributed largely to the policies of those corrupt political elites and their wealthy patrons and cronies. Both would like to say credibly that they are replacing those policies with new and more broadly beneficial ones. Both would also like to claim they are making progress on the issues raised by migration from Mexico, and more recently, from Central American through Mexico, to the U.S.
And at least one — AMLO — correctly perceives these economic and migration policy interests as linked. On July 2d, in a half-hour conversation with Trump, he “proposed exploring a mutual agreement; development projects that would create jobs in Mexico and, by doing so, reduce migration and improve security.” Along with Canada, the two countries are already engaged in tense, protracted discussions over reworking NAFTA, negotiations marred by squabbles over new American tariffs on steel and aluminum that the other two countries are meeting with retaliatory tariffs. AMLO’s designee for Mexico’s economy minister, Graciela Marquez, has stated she supports such retaliatory measures. But AMLO himself has indicated that he favors higher wages in Mexico’s automobile sector, a key Trump administration demand with obvious potential benefits for Mexican workers as well as U.S. automakers.
So it is not wildly unrealistic to suggest that despite their enormous differences, these two nationalists populists might have some overlapping agendas on economic issues that, if constructively and cooperatively pursued, could lessen immigration pressures in the medium to long run. But not only is it empirically questionable whether Donald Trump can ever be counted on to be constructive and cooperative for very long. It is morally questionable whether the U.S. should seek to modify its NAFTA commitments, and whether Mexico’s government should act in ways that benefit, perhaps legitimate, a political leader who has inflamed xenophobia toward Mexicans and ethnic and racial tensions more generally.
Though I strongly reject Trump’s “America First” vision of the nation’s identity, I believe that both AMLO and Trump, and their administrations, have obligations as well as interests that call for new cooperative efforts on trade, wages, and job creation, as well as immigration. I have long argued that, in addition to direct obligations to their own people, and some more general humanitarian obligations, all constitutional democracies, including the United States and Mexico, have certain special obligations arising from their core commitments and their coercively enacted policies. Constitutional democracies profess to be committed to respecting and advancing human rights — none more so than the United States, which defended its declaration of independence from Great Britain on the ground that just governments must seek to secure inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Realistically, no national government, not even the modern United States, can hope to do so for all of humanity, at least not to any great extent. This is the grain of truth in Trump’s “America First” vision.
But when governments have used their coercive powers to shape the opportunities, aspirations, indeed the very identities of specific populations to a substantial extent, then they have corollary obligations to try to help the members of those populations realize their aspirations and identities, their pursuits of happiness, in ways that go beyond the governments’ obligations to all humanity. How far beyond? There can be no easy answers: much depends on the extent of the coercion, the desires of those affected by coercive policies, the practical efficacy of various policy options, and the obligations governments have arising from other sources. Still, when governments have played a special role in forcibly constructing persons’ resources, hopes, and opportunities, then they should acknowledge special obligations to those persons, if their commitments to respect and advance basic human rights mean anything at all. Legitimate governments must serve those they govern — why else should the governed ever consent?
The United States has a long history of coercively shaping the lives, identities and opportunities of Mexicans, sometimes in armed opposition to, sometimes in cooperation with the Mexican government, in ways that have often not merited the consent of most of those affected by these measures. NAFTA is perhaps the most important recent development in this long history. It includes the establishment of independent dispute resolution panels whose decisions on commercial, investment, and labor claims are supposed to be binding, enforced by sanctions imposed by the member governments. In other words, the U.S., Mexico, and Canada have promised to back up NAFTA with their coercive power, and they have sometimes done so. But very unevenly: NAFTA’s labor protections are contained only in a side agreement, the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC), and Human Rights Watch contends that it has been ineffective in protecting against firings for organizing unions, denials of collective bargaining rights, unsafe and unhealthy conditions in many industries, and mistreatment of migrant workers. In 2014, an international civil rights organization, the Permanent Peoples Tribunal in Rome, issued a report contending that NAFTA enforcement had in fact fostered a range of human rights violations by both the U.S. and the Mexican governments, including intrusions on the autonomy of indigenous peoples, environmental degradation, and failures to protect migrants against criminal abuses.
Though all these criticisms are contestable, they suggest strongly that, if the national parties to NAFTA wish to live up to their commitments to secure and not violate the human rights of those strongly affected by their coercively but unevenly enforced regulations, then they should indeed undertake a renegotiation of NAFTA. They should do with heightened protections for workers, migrants, indigenous peoples, and other affected communities and regions foremost in their minds. And if they are really to assist those groups, they should do so as part of broader cooperative economic initiatives of the sort AMLO proposes –initiatives that would enhance the creation of desirable jobs in Mexico and thereby reduce many of the felt needs of people from Mexico, or traveling through Mexico, to migrate to the United States.
As noted, it is conceivable that Trump might see renegotiation of NAFTA along some of these lines, as well as other economic endeavors with Mexico, as in his interest, as part of “Making America Great Again.” Because the U.S. and Mexican governments and their authorizing peoples each have purposes and obligations that extend back into the past beyond Trump and that will endure in the years that follow him, moreover, it is wrong for critics to oppose all efforts by Trump and AMLO to see where the pursuit of those interests leads. The fact that the current occupant of the White House is a very flawed instrument for doing what the United States government should do is no excuse for preventing that government from doing some right things.
It is close to certain, however, that neither better terms for NAFTA nor other cooperative ventures can occur if U.S. positions express only efforts to “win” in the short term. That is why, both in defining general goals and specific policies, the American people should urge that U.S.-Mexican relations express the egalitarian, inclusive vision of American ideals articulated in the opening sentences of the Declaration of Independence, rather than the nativist narcissism of “America First.” In the perspective of that better vision, renegotiation of the ways the three national governments of North America have governed their peoples should not rest satisfied with trying to make “America Great Again.” We should strive instead to make all the Americas greater than they have ever been before. We should seek to improve the conditions of workers and communities in all three countries, especially those harmed by past policies, including NAFTA as it has been. We should aim to reduce migration propelled by harsh necessities alone, while welcoming the almost certainly more manageable movements that express genuinely free choices. And we should use state coercive force only to promote conditions under which families have better chances to flourish together — never to tear families apart. In an ugly coda to a distinguished career, an aging Samuel P. Huntington asked “Who Are We?” and responded in ways that foreshadowed Trump’s call to build a wall against Mexicans. The election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador provides a fresh occasion to answer that we are a people who strive instead to build more perfect unions with all whose destinies we shape and share.
Rogers M. Smith is the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Associate Dean for the Social Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author or co-author of many articles and seven books, including Political Peoplehood(2015), Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama’s America with Desmond S. King (2011), Stories of Peoplehood: The Politics and Morals of Political Membership (2003), and Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History (1997). Civic Ideals received six best book prizes from four professional associations and was a finalist for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in History. Smith was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004, the American Academy of Political and Social Science in 2011, and the American Philosophical Society in 2016. He is currently President-Elect of the American Political Science Association and serves on its Executive Committee.