Colombia was named a Major Non-NATO Ally. Should Mexico be next?

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Manuel López Obrador/FILE

On March 10, U.S President Joe Biden announced Colombia would become a major non-NATO ally (MNNA). The administration proclaimed that the United States and Colombia enjoy a “unique and close relationship.” Becoming an MNNA is a rare status only granted to some of the United States’ closest partners and allies, including Israel, Australia, Japan, and Brazil.

Riding the momentum of the Colombian designation, the United States should also add Mexico to its shortlist. Mexico and the United States have enjoyed remarkably close relations for decades, on many fronts. The two countries share one of the ten longest borders in the world, with continuous movement of goods and people across the boundary.

Despite its interconnectedness with the United States, Mexico has yet to achieve MNNA status. This is especially surprising considering countries like Mexico and others in Latin America experience a second Pink Tide – a wave of electoral victories for left-wing populist leaders. The swift change towards left-wing populism possibly challenges America’s position in its own backyard against China and Russia, its other great-power competitors in the region.

The United States and Mexico are highly integrated economically. They share a trilateral trade agreement – the USMCA – with a trade balance totaling over US$615 billion in annual exports and imports, making it the US’ largest trading partner. In comparison, the US-Colombia trade balance sheet totaled a mere US$40 billion in 2019. Trade between the United States and Mexico created about 5 million jobs in the US and represents 14.5 percent of total US trade as of 2022.

What’s more, thousands of American companies operate in Mexico, making American and Mexican consumers (and companies) benefit directly from this close trading relationship. Designating Mexico an MNNA would serve to further these economic benefits, as it would lift many restrictions on binational trade and commerce.

The MNNA designation makes designated countries eligible for a variety of benefits, including lifted restrictions on the Arms Export Control Act and shared-cost participation in Department of Defense (DoD) research and development projects. The MNNA designation would, therefore, advance trade and security cooperation between the two countries at the same time.

Currently, US-Mexico defense trade is minimal. With Mexico’s law enforcement and military being vastly underequipped, the US providing further equipment to Mexico’s security forces could be a welcome development in its efforts at tackling gang violence. The MNNA would allow for Mexican security forces to acquire better lethal and non-lethal equipment. Mexico could purchase US-owned War Reserve Stockpiles, acquiring US military equipment. Moreover, Mexico would be eligible to receive military financing from the United States, perhaps helping fund AMLO’s planned increase in military salaries to tackle corruption.

The MNNA would enable Mexico to receive loans of defense materiel, supplies, equipment, and training from the United States, and would make it eligible for expedited processing of export licenses of commercial satellites and other signals technologies, assisting Mexico in its intelligence-collection capabilities. The drug cartels are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their intelligence capabilities – now found regularly using armed drones and IEDs – and this provision would put Mexico in a more advantageous position.

In return, this would allow further access for the American defense industry to the Mexican market, helping create jobs in the United States and spurring greater defense technological developments. Mexico does not possess any large national defense industries, allowing American companies to fill this gap and provide Mexico with the equipment it needs to accomplish its security objectives.

With this increased equipment and training, there would be a decreased need for the United States to send law enforcement and military personnel to Mexico, which falls in line with America’s policies of restraint. Historically, American military incursions into Mexico have resulted in military-police and civilian deaths.

In two infamous examples, direct, on-the-ground involvement led to the death of DEA agent Kiki Camarena in 1985 and, in 1997, to Esequiel Hernández, Jr., an American citizen, being killed by US Marines. Reducing direct involvement by the United States in Mexico would also phase out America’s responsibility for civilian casualties across the border as a result of the Drug War, making the designation more palatable to the American public.

The MMNA designation would also make Mexico eligible for a Collective Defense Agreement (CDA), as most MMNAs gained CDAs after their designation. A CDA between Mexico and the US would serve to increase security cooperation on issues of mutual security even further.

These developments would improve Mexico’s ability to counter the activities of organized criminal groups within its borders. Since the end of the Mérida Initiative in 2017, US-Mexico security cooperation has been limited. The MNNA designation would help bring the two nations closer in tackling issues of mutual concern. It would also provide further momentum to a grand strategic framework for the United States in the Western Hemisphere – currently up for debate in the Senate – as mass migration, organized crime, populist authoritarianism, and poverty bubble up around the continent.

Politically, this move would also help alleviate tensions between the two countries. Policymakers in both the US and Mexico have expressed discontent at the current state of bilateral security cooperation. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known by the acronym AMLO), has expressed his wish to limit the DEA’s presence in Mexico and decried past American direct military involvement in Mexico.

On the US side, former President Donald Trump and members of his administration repeatedly expressed frustration at Mexico for not doing enough to tackle gang violence and migration.

Military trade and cooperation, as facilitated by the MNNA, would respond to issues on both sides of the international aisle. For Mexico, the MNNA would provide it with more resources to finance its military and law enforcement activities, allowing for the acquisition of better equipment, recruitment of staff, and building of capacity to accomplish security objectives while reducing the need for the United States to directly send law enforcement and military personnel into Mexico.

Still, one important question remains: Why hasn’t this been done yet? Political pressures in each country are partly to blame. During the Trump-AMLO era, any move by either President towards further security cooperation might have been seen as a betrayal of ideological principles and past policy promises. López Obrador often shared harsh rebukes of Trump-administration policies, while Trump also alienated Mexican policymakers with the border wall, high ICE deportations, and statements on migrants from South of the border.

A national poll conducted this November by Mexican newspaper El Financiero showed that 64 percent of Mexicans believed that relations between Mexico and the U.S are “good or very good,” with 65 percent having a positive view of President Biden. These poll results illustrate that tensions between the two countries have simmered down since the end of the Trump-AMLO era, providing a unique opportunity for the MNNA designation.

The Biden and López Obrador administrations have initiated bilateral talks on security and economic issues, providing an avenue for dialogue on important issues. The North American Leaders Summit was resumed under Biden in November 2021, the first in five years. The High-Level Economic Dialogue on US-Mexico relations has also been re-initiated, a welcome development. The Bicentennial Framework was introduced in October 2021, providing additional momentum to the MNNA designation.

With the Biden administration enjoying a more productive relationship with the AMLO administration than its presidency, this would be an opportune moment for the MNNA to be signed, especially given a possible future change of government in both countries in 2024.

Joseph Bouchard is a Canadian geopolitical analyst focusing on the Americas.