After his inauguration on Jan. 10 to a second term as Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro faced backlash from several world leaders who saw his re-election as fraudulent and his presidency as illegitimate. But one leader who refused to condemn Maduro is Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who was himself inaugurated only on Dec. 1. Other Latin American nations have criticized Lopez Obrador for refusing to label Maduro’s government as illegitimate. Many saw the move as a sign that, under Lopez Obrador, Mexico might adopt a more populist, left-oriented foreign policy. But this isn’t the case. Though it’s true that the new president’s foreign policy will be different than his predecessor’s, it actually mirrors an approach that Mexico followed for decades.

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The Estrada Doctrine

For 70 years, until Vicente Fox took office in 2000, Mexico’s foreign policy had been guided by the Estrada Doctrine. Named for Genaro Estrada, who served as the Mexican foreign affairs secretary from 1930 to 1932, the doctrine took a noninterventionist approach to diplomatic relations, promoting the idea that countries shouldn’t interfere in the domestic affairs of other nations and that they especially shouldn’t comment on the legitimacy of foreign governments. From this perspective, anything short of minor signals of disapproval – such as recalling diplomatic staff or limiting diplomatic presence in a foreign capital – is viewed as unacceptable.

It’s not hard to see why Mexico adopted such an approach. Throughout its history, Mexican governments have had to deal with foreign invasions and regimes that refused to acknowledge their legitimacy and Mexico’s autonomy. Since the 19th century, Mexico fought Spain for its independence, was invaded by France and was partially annexed by the United States. But the country’s problems weren’t brought on only by external factors. After gaining independence, it descended into civil war, and in the early 20th century, numerous revolutions threatened to destabilize the country. Foreign powers often took sides in these fights. Mexico, therefore, has repeatedly felt the frustration of being subjugated by foreign governments and struggling to gain international recognition.

This history was the foundation of the Estrada Doctrine. But as Mexico developed into an emerging economy, it began experimenting with other foreign policy approaches to reflect its new status. In 2000, when the National Action Party unseated the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which had been in power since 1929, the administration of Vicente Fox aspired to increase Mexico’s influence in multilateral organizations and strengthen its ties with the U.S. Fox believed cooperating with Washington would help boost Mexico’s international profile, as one of the United States’ top and most trusted partners. This approach continued with the administrations of Felipe Calderone in 2006-12 and Enrique Pena Nieto in 2012-18.

But it had some major drawbacks and ultimately proved detrimental to Mexico’s broader objective of increasing its role in the region. As part of its closer alignment with the U.S., Mexico began to take positions on issues that were inconsistent with its historical orientation. It criticized the governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Honduras (among others) and commented on their domestic affairs. Some began to see Mexico as a puppet of the United States, using its cultural, linguistic and historical ties to Latin America to do Washington’s bidding in the region. And in doing so, Mexico put at risk one of the biggest advantages it had in the region over the U.S. – its credibility among Latin American countries. Mexico’s international status did improve, but it came at a price.

Lopez Obrador’s refusal to condemn Maduro’s government in Caracas has to be seen in this context. Mexico doesn’t want to set a precedent for foreign interference in domestic affairs, even in countries facing political crises, because it, too, has been the subject of external interventions in the past. This approach doesn’t prevent Mexico from expressing concerns about certain regimes. In the past, it has removed its diplomatic missions from countries with governments widely criticized by the international community – such as Chile under Augusto Pinochet and Spain under Francisco Franco – but it stopped short of making claims about the governments’ legitimacy. The Lopez Obrador government may consider pulling its diplomatic mission out of Venezuela at some point, but for now, it prefers to sit on the sidelines and watch how things play out.

A Key Difference

But there’s one key difference between the way the Estrada Doctrine was applied in the past and the way it’s being applied today. Lopez Obrador wants to portray Mexico as a strong and independent country able to compete with the United States for influence in North America. In his inaugural address, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard laid out this vision for Mexican foreign policy to the country’s diplomatic corps. He said Mexico’s position in the world has grown stronger, and it, therefore, has a greater ability to achieve its strategic objectives. According to Ebrard, the current global climate (which refers in part to ongoing tensions over trade) will require Mexico to design new responses to old realities. Mexico “can’t rely solely on tradition” to navigate its relations in North America.

Mexico’s government will, therefore, be looking to break from the past three administrations and forge its own position on issues independent of the U.S. One area in which it has already done so is the Central American migration issue. While the U.S. has sought to prevent migrants from reaching its southern border and rely on other countries to deal with the problem, Mexico has offered alternative solutions, trying to absorb some of the migrants and even hiring them to work on major infrastructure projects in the south. By adopting a softer stance on the migrants than the U.S. has, Mexico can boost its image and influence with Central American nations. Lopez Obrador has also campaigned for a mini-Marshall Plan for Central America to help spur economic development and improve the security situation there – though it’s relying on Washington to fund the project.

These policies have a minor impact in the short term but may help position Mexico as a regional leader over time. The government also plans to use culture as one way to project influence. In his inauguration speech, Ebrard said his country has not forgotten about Mexicans living abroad and that they, too, are “part of the Mexican nation.” By emphasizing the cultural links, Ebrard is trying to appeal to people of Mexican heritage in the United States, particularly those in the southern border states, who have close ties to Mexico even though, in some cases, their families have been in the U.S. for generations. Mexico can use these cultural ties in the future to extend its influence into the borderland. Meanwhile, it’s also cracking down on fuel theft, which has cost state-owned energy firm Pemex $3.3 billion between January and October 2018, to reduce its dependence on U.S. energy – which will help Mexico gain more control over its own foreign policy.

It might seem like a contradiction – that Mexico is embracing a noninterventionist foreign policy, seen through the president’s comments on Venezuela, while also expanding its regional influence. But the government is trying to strike a balance between learning the lessons of Mexico’s past and taking advantage of its growing regional clout to pursue its interests, thereby positioning Mexico as an alternative to the U.S. and a critical partner for other Latin American countries. So Mexico is indeed changing the direction of its foreign policy; it’s just not heading in the direction that most people think.

Allison Fedirka
Allison Fedirka is a senior analyst for Geopolitical Futures. In addition to writing analyses, she helps train new analysts, oversees the intellectual quality of analyst work and helps guide the forecasting process. Prior to joining Geopolitical Futures, Ms. Fedirka worked for Stratfor as a Latin America specialist and subsequently as the Latin America regional director. She lived in South America – primarily Argentina and Brazil – for more than seven years and, in addition to English, fluently speaks Spanish and Portuguese. Ms. Fedirka has a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and international studies from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in international relations and affairs from the University of Belgrano, Argentina. Her thesis was on Brazil and Angola and south-south cooperation.