Este no es el Bolívar del Chavismo: Balancing Integration & the Limits of AMLO’s Foreign Policy

A momentous speech in Mexican foreign policy. Photo: Presidencia de la República.

In a landmark foreign policy speech celebrating the 238th anniversary of the birth of Latin American revolutionary Simón Bolívar, the Mexican president laid out his vision for regional integration and the reconfiguration of the international system. A close reading of his speech reveals the limits and contradictions of AMLO’s foreign policy of balance. AMLO’s speech in Spanish.

For the first time in decades, Mexico is looking south. Not once in recent history had a Mexican president honored a South American revolutionary at an official ceremony, much less used the occasion to mark an independent policy path heavily critical of the United States:

Washington has never stopped overt and covert operations against independent nations south of the Rio Grande. The influence of U.S. foreign policy dominates the Americas. There is only one special case, that of Cuba, the country that for more than half a century has asserted its independence confronting politically the United States. We may or may not agree with the Cuban Revolution and its government, but having resisted 62 years without submission is a great feat. […]

The politics of the last two centuries are unacceptable, characterized by invasions to install or remove leaders at the whim of the superpower; let’s say goodbye to the impositions, the interventions, the sanctions, the exclusions and the blockades. […]

The proposal is, nothing more, nothing less than to build something similar to the European Union, but in line with our history, our reality and our identities. In this spirit, we should not discard the substitution of the OAS for a truly autonomous organization, not anyone’s lackey, but a mediator at the petition and acceptance of parties in a conflict, in issues of human rights and democracy.

With the image of the Liberator behind him, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador lambasted the history of U.S. intervention in Latin America, called for profound regional integration, demanded an end to the criminal embargo on Cuba and even suggested doing away with the discredited OAS. The rhetoric of anti-interventionism, combined with the imagery of Simón Bolívar, evoked obvious parallels with the revolutionary project of Bolivarianismo, championed by Hugo Chávez, although AMLO never mentioned either Chávez or his project explicitly.

From the left, this watershed homage to Bolívar and the echoes of the Bolivarian Revolution reaffirmed AMLO’s anti-interventionist credentials and strengthened his figure as regional leader. From the right, the sacrilegious display demonstrated Mexico’s Fourth Transformation colluded with a continental communist conspiracy, and among less extreme audiences, AMLO’s speech upset the ahistorical consensus on the OAS and the role of the U. S. in the region. Lost in these interpretations was the fact that AMLO’s proposal for regional integration is vastly dissimilar from Chávez’s project, and should be scrutinized carefully as its own separate geopolitical project for the Americas.

A far cry from the spirited rhetoric of anti-imperialist Bolivarianismo championed by Hugo Chávez, AMLO’s vision of regional integration is not one of rupture with empire or capitalism, as Chávez’s project clearly was. AMLO’s proposal seeks to strike a mutually beneficial balance with the United States and global capitalism; it is a program of cooperation, not confrontation with the Colossus of the North. Instead of clashing with the U. S. American Empire, AMLO extended a conciliatory hand and called for Pan-American unity that includes the U.S. and Canada. In contrast to Chávez, AMLO does not offer an anti-imperialist vision; he identifies Mexican interests in the economic and military wellbeing of the United States, noting the U. S. American military industrial complex would not function without inputs from the Mexican manufacturing industry. And while both political programs herald a multipolar world system, the Bolivarian Revolution sees in China a strategic partner, while AMLO’s vision pits the Americas against the Chinese bloc.

It can be said that the military industry of the United States depends on automotive parts made in Mexico. I do not say this with pride, but to underline our existing interdependence. Speaking of this issue, like I told President Biden, we prefer economic integration with a sovereign dimension with the United States and Canada, in order to recuperate the losses to China in production and commerce, instead of continuing to decline as a region and having in the Pacific a theater plagued with bellicose tensions; in other words, it is in our interests that the United States is strong economically and not just militarily. Achieving this equilibrium and not hegemony of any country, is the most responsible and most convenient to maintain the peace for the good of future generations and of humanity.

After his private virtual meeting with the U.S. Commander-in-Chief in March of this year, the Mexican president was equally explicit in describing his proposal for integration as beneficial for the United States. “Mexico is the spark for the commercial and economic development of North America,” he remarked back then. What AMLO offered to Joe Biden with his proposal for integration was to put a stop to the decline of U.S. empire by pooling the Americas’ natural resources, labor power and productive base. Although his call for integration is conditioned to some degree of national sovereignty, the proposal contrasts significantly with the anti-imperialist orientation of the Bolivarian Revolution.

AMLO’s project for Pan-American integration contrasts with anti-imperialist initiatives. Photo: Agencia Venezolana de Noticias.

The ideological content of AMLO’s proposal is instead concretely founded on liberalism. AMLO sees his historical parallel and greatest political influence in the 19th century liberal Benito Juárez, who carried out the “second historical transformation” of Mexico by implementing liberal reforms. One of the campaign promises of AMLO’s “Fourth Transformation” was a cooperation agreement with the U.S. based on JFK’s Alliance for Progress, a Marshall Plan for Latin America to pacify revolutionary change and generate dependency in recipient countries. Thus, the president’s ideation of regional integration is a Pan-American political body (à la UE) backed by an economic integration project like an updated Alliance for Progress, nowhere near anti-imperialist initiatives that also evoke the image the of Bolívar, like the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA).

The limits of AMLO’s foreign policy are perhaps best exemplified in the key, conditional principle of his integration proposal — also its main contradiction: respect for sovereignty.

It is moment for a new coexistence between all the countries of the Americas, because the model imposed more than two centuries ago is exhausted, it has no future nor exit, it benefits no one. We must sweep aside the false dichotomy of integrating with the United States or opposing it defensively. It is time to express and explore another option: that of dialogue with U.S. leaders to convince them and persuade them that a new relation between the countries of the Americas is possible.

I consider that in the present there are unparalleled conditions to achieve this goal of respecting each other and walking together without leaving anyone behind. For this end it is possible we might help with our experience of economic integration with respect for our sovereignty, which we put to practice in the conception and application of the trade and economic treaty with the United States and Canada.

Obviously, it is no small thing to have as neighbor a country like the United States. Our proximity forces us to look for agreements and it would be a grave error to challenge Samson to a match*, but at the same time we have powerful reasons to assert our sovereignty and demonstrate with arguments, without baravado, that we are not a protectorate, a colony nor their backyard. Moreover, with the passage of time, little by little a circumstance favorable to our country has gained traction: the disproportionate growth of China has strengthened the opinion in the United States that we should be seen as allies and not as distant neighbors.

[*idiom: fight against an invincible rival]

AMLO’s proposal acknowledges the history of U.S. intervention in the region and thus seeks an equilibrium between integration and sovereignty. His model is the USMCA trade agreement that replaced NAFTA, wherein Mexico managed to carve out a greater margin of maneuver in economic sectors and political issues it considered strategic. This example is contradictory, though, as his geopolitical justification for integration (competition with China in a multipolar world) suggests much of the strategic resources and decisions will necessarily be the jurisdiction of a hypothetical Pan-American Union and not its individual member states. The president also pointed to the principles of the Estrada Doctrine as indicators of his desired balance. According to his view, the new model of integration rests on the principles of “non-intervention, self-determination of peoples and peaceful resolution of controversies.”

The Estrada Doctrine is the backbone of AMLO’s foreign policy. Photo: Presidencia de la República.

But his proposal for a regional integration and balance of power based on the respect for national sovereignty is stunted in the legal formalism typical of the entelechy of liberal multilateralism and constructivist institution-building. In what world does an empire pledge to non-intervention? In what version of reality does an empire abnegate its designs for domination? Judged by the realpolitik that governs the halls of power, such an appeal is hardly a viable petition.

U.S. policymakers are hopelessly indoctrinated by “American exceptionalism” and the language of “full spectrum dominance.” The clash with China that AMLO identified as an opportunity is actually a race by the U.S. to retain hegemony and impede the transition from a unipolar to a multipolar international system. Power does not concede without a struggle and for all his political acumen and historical expertise, AMLO fails to integrate this unspoken law into his project for the region.

The geostrategic objective of AMLO’s regional integration plan is balance. Not just equilibrium between sovereignty and integration, or parity in the relationship with the United States, but above all, balance in the international system. According to AMLO’s proposal, the endgame of regional integration is to counterbalance the Chinese bloc in the Asia-Pacific.

Above all we should be realists and accept, like I proposed in the speech I gave in the White House on July of last year, that while China dominates 12.2% of the market for exports and services globally, the U.S. only has a 9.5% share; and this divide comes from just the past 30 years, since in 1990, China’s share was 1.3 and the U.S. was 12.4%. Lets imagine if this tendency during the last 3 decades was prolonged, and there is nothing legal o legitimate that can prevent it, in another 30 years, by 2051, China would have dominance over 64.8% of the world market and the U.S. between 4 and 10%; which, I insist, more than an unacceptable disproportion economically, it would keep alive the temptation to resolve this disparity through force, which would endanger all of us.

We could suppose in a simplistic manner that it is up to every nation to assume its responsibility, but dealing with such a delicate and profound issue, with respect for others’ rights and the independence of every country, we think the best would be to strengthen North America and the whole continent economically and commercially.

In other words, Pan-American integration is the solution if the U.S. is to have any hope of relevance in a multipolar world order that AMLO accepts as inevitable. This is not a new perspective, as U.S. American think tanks and policymakers thinking in terms of “Great Power Competition” already view the Americas as their “backyard” in the new geopolitical reconfiguration, in their view, little more than a partition to exchange or consolidate spheres of influence while retaining relative global dominance. Parting from this position, there is no incentive for the U.S. to voluntarily adhere to more equal terms when subjugated integration is the norm. Mechanisms like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Pacific Alliance are both the examples of this strategy to consolidate an economic bloc, without formal participation of the U.S., but structurally subaltern to the United States economy and out of reach for China.

The Pacific Alliance salvaged what it managed from the TPP, but without the U. S. Photo: Alianza del Pacífico.

Moreover, AMLO’s projections about Chinese domination and U.S. decadence, though long-term, are short-sighted. China’s gains in the international stage are by no means advances without resistance, and extrapolating Chinese world market share as if economic reality was a linear constant ignores the complexities of political economy and international relations. Another alarmist suggestion is that the U.S. will employ military force to close the gap with China, an insinuation that does not reflect the dominant multidimensional mode of conflict between states in the 21st century, that of hybrid warfare, one that avoids direct, high-stakes military engagement in favor of confrontation by other means. This implies that the unlikely nightmare scenario of a hot war in Asia is replaced with unconventional conflict in variable spaces of contention.

It is therefore with an imprecise framework that AMLO attempts to abandon the false dichotomy of integration or no integration with the U.S., but in doing so he creates another fallacy: “to contain China, we must strengthen the United States.” His logic is flawed, but it is a rationality produced within the limitations of Mexico’s “geopolitical cage”: the reality of a U.S.-dominated North America.

There is an immutable condition that every Mexican president must come to accept: Mexico shares a border with the most formidable superpower on Earth. As AMLO recognized during his speech:

It is no small thing to have as neighbor a country like the United States […] and it would be a grave error to challenge Samson to a match.

There is no easy translation for the idiom, but more or less it admonishes to never fight against a rival when terribly outmatched. It is a sobering expression, especially from AMLO, but it is a geopolitical axiom that conditions Mexican foreign policy in every sense. And it is only from this pragmatic perspective that one can understand AMLO’s cautionary foreign policy of balance.

From North American integration to a Pan-American Union. Photo: Presidencia de la República.

The U.S. is not just a geographic neighbor of Mexico, but also the main trading partner, the leading cultural influence, the primary migrant destination, the chief political lobbyist… This relationship invariably conditions Mexican foreign policy at every turn, ideologically and materially. AMLO’s proposal for regional integration is no exception, but this is no excuse not to question his plan, the relationship with the United States in particular.

Is integration with the U.S. under a Pan-American Union desirable? Is China a threatening competitor or a strategic partner? What are the alternatives and variations of regional integration? These are key questions that must be posed in the face of the most far-reaching regional integration proposal since Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian dream. These issues are especially noteworthy with Mexico taking the lead as regional actor in Latin America, not just under AMLO, but possibly into the future. Current Foreign Minister, Marcelo Ebrard, is a leading favorite to succeed López Obrador in 2024. He is the mastermind of Mexico’s vaccine diplomacy, AMLO’s chief international operator, leader of the “pragmatist wing” of MORENA and confidante of the Democrat Party and the Clinton establishment. Should he attain the nomination for presidential candidate to continue the Fourth Transformation, AMLO’s regional integration proposal will remain relevant and ripe for implementation.

Marcelo Ebrard (middle), political protagonist in the presidential succession. Photo: Presidencia de la República.

With the acceleration of multipolarity, the delegitimization of the OAS, the strengthening of the CELAC, the underperformance of ALBA, the liquidation of UNASUR, and the practical nullification of MERCOSUR, there is fertile ground for a new regional integration initiative, but AMLO’s proposal should be analyzed extensively, especially his proposed relationship with the United States. It is not the North American Union of NAFTA fever dreams, but it is also not the Bolivarian Alliance of Chávez’s program. It is a policy of balance and moderation; beyond excessive plaudits from the left or undue alarmism from the right, it must be evaluated accordingly.

AMLO’s landmark foreign policy speech. July 24, 2021.

Investigative journalist and political consultant based in Northern Mexico and the US Southwest