Ms. Rice Goes to Mexico

September 25, 2007

What are we to make of the Bush Administration’s continual withdrawal from international agreements? Of its naming of hard-line hawks to sensitive international posts? Is the Administration being self-destructive in its disregard for world opinion? Or is it cleverly testing the limits of its global dominance? In Latin America, where U.S. dominance has been challenged and defended for the past two centuries, “testing the limits” is the answer—and an old story. There is a lesson in Secretary of State Rice’s official one-day trip to Mexico City this past March 10.

At the end the day, she and Mexico’s foreign minister, Luis Ernesto Derbez, announced Mexico’s agreement to deliver 716,000 acre-feet of water to U.S. border states by September of this year. The agreed-upon delivery will resolve a long-simmering dispute between the two countries over a 1944 treaty on the sharing of fresh water along the border.

But another treaty dispute remained unresolved. That’s the dispute over Washington’s decision, just a few days earlier, to withdraw from the Optional Protocol to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The protocol, which was drafted in 1963 by the United States itself, gives individuals imprisoned in foreign countries the right to consult with their own consular officials during the process of imprisonment and trial. It mandates the UN’s International Court of Justice with the authority to intervene in cases in which that right has apparently been violated.

Under that authorization, the Court had recently directed a “meaningful review” of 51 convictions and sentences of Mexican citizens sentenced to death in the United States. It appears that none of the condemned had been allowed to consult with a consular official. Following that decision, Washington announced that it would simply remove itself from the Court’s jurisdiction.

“We will continue to believe in the importance of consular notification,” said Secretary Rice in the run-up to her Mexico City meeting, but international court jurisdiction has “proven inappropriate for the United States.” Rice effectively told the Mexicans: while you folks have a water treaty to live up to, we can simply withdraw from any signed agreement we find “inappropriate.” There was no embarrassment on Rice’s part about the contradiction. On the contrary, confirming those different levels of obligation was one of the objectives of her visit.

Rice was in Mexico to reaffirm U.S. dominance. In the days leading up to her visit, she remarked that Washington would permit leftist governments to come to power in the Americas as long as they chose to govern within a “democratic structure.” The key, she strongly implied to all the pre-candidates for Mexico’s presidency in next year’s election, is who gets to define “democratic structure.” She knew the pre-candidates were aware of some key components of Washington’s definition these days—minimal regulation of financial activity, no land redistributions, no nationalizations, no overly independent foreign and economic policies. We believe in free elections, she was not-so-subtly signaling, even if the wrong guys win—as long as they govern like the right guys.

Like most of the current Latin American left, the parliamentary left in Mexico (spread over more than one party) is Keynesian and social democratic. Should it come to power, it would likely make use of government economic policies to stimulate and regulate the economy. Moderate as that sounds, an emphasis on regulation and state oversight may not be considered to be governing within a “democratic structure” by all the neocons on the Bush team. Rice realizes the Mexicans know that. She let it be known she will be watching.

At the end of the day it was clear that Secretary Rice had traveled to Mexico City not to negotiate any particular deal, but to reaffirm the asymmetries of power. Those asymmetries determine the substance of negotiations between the two countries as well as the limits within which politics can take place. Those limits, of course, have never been formally defined, and so need to be demonstrated and tested—by both sides—from time to time. This brief, seemingly innocuous visit may have been one of those times. She was as friendly as she could be while making it absolutely clear who calls the shots.


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