By Raúl Zepeda-Gil
Mexico has no benefit in joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In a pragmatic sense, the relation with the United States constrains how Mexico employs its foreign policy. Adding a new layer of complexity, coming from an international organisation that has an overwhelming leadership from the U.S., would futher hinder Mexico’s foreign policy by reducing its freedom degrees of action by excesing a neutralilty instance in international security matters.
Historically, Mexico has diverged from the U.S. foreign policy and acted in a semi-neutral basis for the rest of the world. After the recurrent invasions from the U.S. and France during the 19th Century, Mexico adopted constitutional principles enshirend in article 89, fraction X: self-determination, peaceful conflict resolution, follow international law, and the proscription to threat to use force against other State.
Mario Ojeda, one the most relevant experts on Mexico’s foreign policy, described the paradox of a relatively weak country neighbouring through a long border with the United States: it has independence in foreign policy in exchange for cooperation in everyday matters. Mexico does not engage in international security affairs of the U.S., but has intensive cooperation in other maters: border protection, migration issues, having a Free Trade Agreement, and Plan Merida for anti-drug initiatives.
In 2019, Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General of NATO, in response to the integration of Colombia as a partner of the alliance, mentioned that other Latin American countries could integrate in the same way. This appeal happened in a particular geopolitical moment: Brazil had requested to join NATO to help Donald Trump pressure the rest of the member states internally.
2021 has changed the scenario: Trump is now out of office. And Joe Biden will reinforce the U.S. presence in NATO. However, before these junctures, two members of the Atlantic Council have made their case for Mexico in NATO. Skaluba and Doyle argued:
“Mexico could serve as a gateway for an intensified NATO presence in Latin America where the alliance is absent outside of a formal partnership with Colombia. Given Russia’s criticality in propping up Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela and China’s growing influence throughout the Global South, an augmented NATO role in Latin America could further democracy promotion while providing a timely deterrent effect, including on Russia’s solicitation of Mexico to increase bilateral trade and security agreements.”
This idea has been widely debated. In 2012, Christopher Sands, of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkin’s University, said:
President Obama and Prime Minister Harper should consider Mexico when they meet with other NATO leaders in Chicago. NATO with Mexico as a member could also confirm the alliance’s role as a guarantor of security and mutual cooperation against transnational security threats that contributes to the prosperity of the west, in Europe and North America equally.
Both pieces, plus the Stoltenberg declaration, do not mention why or how Mexico would benefit from a NATO membership beyond the current benefits from the bilateral relationship with the U.S. or the integration within the free trade agreement government Canada. Both quotes show that having Mexico’s main interest in NATO is to be functional to the NATO agenda. Nonetheless, history has shown that Mexico’s geographical closeness to the U.S. automatically requires Mexico to be auxiliary to the Atlantic agenda. Mexico is so entwined with the U.S. that it will choose to be with the U.S. on a global scale conflict.
Nonetheless, beyond a real common threat to Mexico and the U.S., such as the Japanese Empire during the Second World War, Mexico does not need to enter into the agenda of international conflicts of the U.S. The advantage of Mexico’s independent foreign policy is that Mexico exchanges cooperation of its own agenda without the need to be involved in issues that are not geopolitically relevant to Mexico. For example, the George W. Bush administration pressured Mexico to enter the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq in 2002. Nonetheless, México denied joining that endevour initially because it was not supported in the UN Security Council. Afterwards, with the negative vote of Mexico in the UN Security Council in 2003, the Iraq War was not athorised, therefore, giving Mexico the main reason to deny any future involvement: it was against the Mexican constitutional principle of following the international law. Indeed, diplomatic tensions arose, but the bilateral agenda continued as usual, and Mexico did not embark in a conflict; it not needed be involved.
For a country so dependent on the U.S. economy, joining to NATO would mean relinquishing degrees of freedom in foreign policy. Mexico is in line with North America’s defence by cooperating with the U.S. Northern Command and follows constitutional principles of peaceful resolutions of conflict and democratic values. However, joining with NATO would mean that Mexico could be pressured to integrate to conflicts in Afghanistan, Libya, Bosnia, or Yemen, contentious by themselves in other multilateral forums.
As stated before, Mexico usually disagrees with NATO countries in the UN on international security matters. For example, Mexico has never supported Responsibility to Protect as a policy, instead prefers diplomatic mediation. And has never supported military responses for international security matters, rather than just peacekeeping operations.
The previously mentioned authors argued that Mexico would benefit from the Security Sector Reform (SSR) framework that NATO implemented in Eastern Europe. Is it necessary that Mexico join NATO to ask for bilateral or multilateral cooperation in implementing SSR framework? The authors were not aware that bilateral cooperation with the U.S. in anti-narcotics agenda has involved some SSR programs under the Merida Initiative signed during the George W. Bush administration. Nowadays, UN peacekeeping is a more effective way to engage in SSR reform in the defence sector than NATO initaitives. Mexico has established a new peacekeeping educational centre for its recent engagement in UN peacekeeping since 2014, after a long absence from any peacekeeping since the late 1950s. Therefore, there are no apparent benefits in cooperating with NATO.
Finally, we remember why NATO was founded: to combat Soviet influence Undeniably, Mexico also was under the influence of Cold War global politics. However, instead of following the US foreign policy agenda, Mexico has followed a foreign policy agenda based on promoting peaceful resolution of conflicts, neutrality in conflicts, and the promotion of de-nuclearisation. Mexico has developed a diverse portfolio of multilateral initiatives in the UN that are possible because it does not follow U.S. foreign policy: migration agreements, small arms trafficking and recently, promoting the global vaccine alliance for developing countries. Close cooperation in real bilateral problems with the U.S. allows Mexico to act with more freedom in global issues. Joining NATO would hinder that freedom.
it is not a problem to argue that a country has a role in the global scenario. But, the problem with the Atlantic Council’s arguments is that they do not consider any of the current foreign policy traditions of Mexico. In simpler terms: they did not even mind asking or thinking in Mexican terms why would it be useful to be in NATO, beyond a random menu or SSR reform, without knowing what is happening in its SSR agenda. In even more practical terms: if there is something that unsettles the U.S. about the Mexico’s bilateral relations with Russia or China, a phone call between the State Department and the Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Affairs would be more effective than a long and exhaustiative process in joining NATO.
Raúl Zepeda-Gil is a Mexican PhD Student in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London. He holds degree in political science by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and a master’s degree in political science by El Colegio de Mexico. One of his research topics is Mexican multilateral foreign policy and civil-military relations. You can follow him on Twitter at @zepecaos.