How the Results of the Mexican Election Could Impact U.S. National Defense


(Dallas Morning News)

Presidential front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the National Regeneration Movement addresses supporters during a rally in Atlixco, Mexico, June 6, 2018

Presidential front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador addresses supporters during a rally in Atlixco, Mexico, June 6, 2018

Photo by Gustavo Graf Maldonado/Reuters

by Sean M. Zeigler

June 7, 2018

The recently issued U.S. National Defense Strategy (PDF) singles out increasing global competition as the primary national security concern. It embraces a strategic approach that combines a more lethal force with the strengthening of alliances and partnerships. It short, the United States will need to foster allies and friends in order to gain advantages over potential adversaries.

While much of the focus has been on the Far East and Europe's eastern border, nowhere are allies more critical for keeping the homeland safe than right here in the Western Hemisphere, particularly with Mexico.

The U.S.-Mexico relationship is at a key strategic juncture, especially in the shadow of Mexico's July 1 presidential election. Certainly the bitter exchanges between the Donald Trump administration and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto over the past year and a half have not looked good.

This is unfortunate. Amid all the back-and-forth about paying for the border wall, canceled presidential visits, incendiary rhetoric and total uncertainty about the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement, at least two important points may be overlooked.

1. Mexico is an important emerging and developing nation. The World Bank estimates Mexico is among the world's 15 largest economies—No. 11 if measured by GDP in purchasing power parity.

Such a sizeable economy means that Mexico faces its own challenge in dealing with immigration, particularly from Central America. The upshot is that the U.S. immigration problem is also Mexico's headache. In the past few years, more people entering the U.S. illegally have come from Central American countries than from Mexico.

2. U.S.-Mexican cooperation continues in several important areas. In particular, on the military-to-military front, the U.S.-Mexico relationship is relatively strong.

In April 2017, Mexico co-hosted, with U.S. Southern Command and Northern Command, the Central American Security Conference for the first time in Cozumel. The event attracted representatives of the ministries of defense from Central America. The conference marked a significant step in fostering more regional cooperation to address transnational threats.

Mexico has also taken a collaborative role with the U.S. in battling organized crime and curbing illegal immigration from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Last year, Mexico co-hosted, with the U.S., the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America in Miami. The occasion attracted government and business leaders from the U.S., Mexico, and Central America to address economic, security and governance challenges and opportunities in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Finally, Mexico has also stepped up its maritime interdiction activity at the regional level. On a recent trip to Mexico City, a senior U.S. defense official noted that the Mexican Marine Infantry Amphibious Reaction Force has become a highly skilled asset. In fact, the U.S., Mexico and Colombia began joint operations this spring targeting drug smugglers off South America's Pacific coast. The levels of information sharing, collaboration and cooperation between Mexico and the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard are as high as they have been in more than 15 years.

The Mexican presidential election on July 1 could change this.

All signs suggest that Amlo, as Andrés Manuel López Obrador is widely known, will prevail in his third effort to become Mexico's head of state. The populist front-runner is running on an anti-corruption platform with his National Regeneration Movement party. It is likely that a shake-up of some sort in U.S.-Mexico relations would be in the offing with a López Obrador presidency, most likely on the military-to-military front.

In an election that has turned ugly over corruption allegations, Amlo has attempted to remain above the fray by calling for "peace and love." He has made soothing domestic overtures, including a pledge to work with the private sector on infrastructure projects. He also promised not to raise taxes and not to scrap Mexico's energy reform project that has attracted billions in investment pledges.

Worryingly for the U.S. military, however, López Obrador is widely unpopular with the Mexican armed forces. He has called for removing the Mexican military from public security operations. However, with the firepower the cartels have amassed in the last decade, it seems like the Mexican military might be the only force capable of confronting them. Amlo has also called for amnesty for many of Mexico's drug traffickers.

Amlo is a wild card. The same man who once called former Mexican president Vicente Fox a squawking bird could pose a volatile counterpart for Trump.

The United States would be wise to continue to view its southern neighbor increasingly through a geopolitical lens. This could entail encouraging Mexico to think more globally and regionally about its role. The gains of the past decade could certainly be at risk.

The summary version of the National Defense Strategy states: "The U.S. derives immense benefit from a stable, peaceful hemisphere that reduces security threats to the homeland." Mexico is the U.S.'s first and possibly most critical point of contact with Latin America. If the U.S. is serious about the crucial role of mutually beneficial alliances, Mexico could be a place to make good on its pledge to bolster important security partners, no matter who wins the coming election.

Sean Zeigler is an associate political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

This commentary originally appeared on Dallas Morning News on June 6, 2018. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.