A Change in Course? Mexican Foreign Policy after Castañeda

It is difficult to tell whether Mexican foreign policy will change following the resignation of Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda and the appointment of the Economy Secretary Ernesto Derbez as his successor by President Vicente Fox.

It is difficult to tell whether Mexican foreign policy will change following the resignation of Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda and the appointment of the Economy Secretary Ernesto Derbez as his successor by President Vicente Fox. Derbez is a former World Bank official who served for fifteen years at the Bank, as a program officer in Chile, as operations manager in Africa and as director of banking and finance in India, Nepal and Bhutan.

It is not clear whether Derbez, who served as Fox's economic advisor during his presidential campaign, will continue Castañeda's "revolution" in Mexican foreign policy vis-à-vis Washington-marked by turning away from the traditional line of emphasizing Mexican sovereignty "at all costs" in favor of a more accommodationist approach-that saw Mexico express criticism of Fidel Castro's Cuba and demonstrate firm and vocal support for the United States. Fox may wish to clearly demonstrate that, no matter who holds the foreign ministry portfolio, the new approach to Mexican-American relations is determined by the president and will remain on track.

On the other hand, the gravitational forces within Mexican political culture may shift the relationship between Mexico City and Washington to the pre-Fox pattern, characterized by a Mexican tendency to "buck" the United States to demonstrate its independence. Castañeda himself provided a great deal of momentum for a pro-Washington policy, a shift that has been strenuously resisted by the nationalist "old guard" within the Mexican Foreign Service as well as among key segments of the Mexican political elite. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when Castañeda championed America's "right of reprisal" and vowed that Mexico would not "haggle" over its loyalty, Mexico's media, intellectuals, old-line politicians and influential left-wing were all strongly critical. Even other members of the Fox Administration, notably Santiago Creel, the Interior Minister (Secretarío de Gobernacíon), insinuated that Castañeda was acting as a stooge for the Americans.

Castañeda had staked his revolution on what he hoped would be the centerpiece of a new United States-Mexico relationship: an immigration accord. For Mexico's new policy to take root, he believed that Washington would need to offer a substantive deal on immigration. (1) In his resignation statement, Castañeda recognized that, in a post 9/11 environment, such an accord is not going to happen. "I am disappointed that we haven't been able to achieve faster and more concrete results in migration. I assume the responsibility of not having reached these goals," he noted.

Castañeda's resignation also casts a shadow over the Fox Administration as a whole. With Fox's domestic program in disarray, foreign policy came by default to be seen as the one arena where Fox, along with his energetic foreign minister, had put his stamp-swinging Mexican policy toward the United States and pulling away from its traditional defense of sovereignty against all other claims. Now, the old guard has managed to undermine Fox's last bastion where he could claim success-the conduct of foreign affairs.

(1) This was discussed in great length in my article, "End of An Affair?", in the Winter 2002/03 issue of The National Interest, at http://www.nationalinterest.org/issues/70/Leiken.html.

Robert S. Leiken is the director of the Immigration and National Security Program at The Nixon Center.