Jeffrey Davidow
"Possibilities and Challenges for the U.S. and Mexico"

October 14, 2002

Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow

Possibilities and Challenges for the U.S. and Mexico
Dwight Dyer, Political Science

On Oct. 14, 2002, Jeffrey Davidow, former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico (1998-2002), offered his views on the challenges and opportunities lying ahead for the relationship between the United States and Mexico. In a collegial atmosphere at the Women’s Faculty Club, he analyzed the current state of the relationship and explored the most contentious issues he encountered in his four-year tenure, which straddled the historic change of parties in the Mexican presidency in 2000. The highlights of the talk are summarized below.

The United States’ relationship with Mexico is of great consequence, since “it is the country that has the greatest impact on the daily lives of most American citizens.” Not only is Mexico a large neighbor with a population of one hundred million, but it is also America’s second largest trading partner, poised to surge ahead of first place Canada within a decade. Its influence is felt in the development of manufacturing and agricultural industries, in the demographical changes sweeping many states in the Union and even in people’s everyday language.

Although economic integration and demographic interpenetration are proceeding at a fast pace, policymakers do not actively discuss the direction of the relationship. Consequently, there is a dearth of information on the many issues that shape it. No doubt speaking from personal experience, Ambassador Davidow considers that nothing in this relationship is easy, given the conflictive and tortured past that informs the attitudes and the gamesmanship on both sides of the "Tortilla Curtain."

While speaking about the specific issues that made his tenure interesting, Ambassador Davidow suggested that, in general, the relationship is better now than ever before. The growing levels of cooperation and exchange between the federal and state governments and non-governmental organizations reflect the understanding that shared problems need shared solutions rather than unilaterally imposed decisions.

Talking candidly about the institutional differences between the PRI and PAN administrations, he pointed out that although PRI Presidents engaged the United States intensively, they thought it inconvenient to publicize this cooperation because of the regime’s nationalist ideology.

The PAN President, on the other hand, has “a lesser level of hypocrisy.” Publicly open cooperation is the new government’s preferred modus operandi and, despite differences in approach to some issues between the two countries, the growing closeness is leading to positive results. As examples, he mentioned anti-drug trafficking policy, where “Mexico’s greater competence in prosecuting drug cartels and the U.S. Congress’s quiet relegation of the insulting annual certification” have improved outcomes; health policy, which targets tuberculosis outbreaks among migrant workers; and education spending, where a recent agreement made $50 million available for cooperation programs between universities across the border. Unfortunately, the press does not pick up on these successful areas as much as it does on the one large, contentious issue: migration.

Since President Bush’s first visit to Mexico in April, 2001, the Mexican government has made migration the centerpiece of its U.S. foreign policy, seeking to combine efforts to arrive at a fresh, new approach. Responding to the challenge raised by President Fox, who styled himself the representative of the more than 20 million Mexicans and their descendants who live in the U.S., a binational High Level Commission was set up.

The initial Fox-Bush euphoria that “enthralled policy actors” led them to think it would be easy to address this complex, multidimensional problem and to disregard obstacles. However, the two sides soon started speaking at cross-purposes. The U.S. demanded that actions be taken to “stem the flow of ‘temporary’ workers across the border,” but this was of little interest to Mexico. The Mexicans proposed that the Bush administration redefine the legal status of undocumented workers, but naively expected the Executive to overlook Congressional reservations. Progress was slowly being made when the September 11th attacks occurred, changing the agenda completely.

This unfortunate turn of events generated the perception in Mexican public opinion of a sudden downward spiral in the relationship with the United States. “A largely self-inflicted wound,” says Davidow, because the Mexican government should have been more adept at managing the huge expectations it had helped create previous to assuming office. Also, Mexico has committed the same mistake the United States did twenty years ago: reducing a complex relationship to one issue. “Like the U.S. did with drugs, Mexico has done with migration.” Nevertheless, he thinks there is a lot of room for improvement in this area, as has been achieved in others, if the parties concentrate on working out the separate strands that thread into the web.

Lastly, Ambassador Davidow turned to the wider perspective of Latin America in the U.S. vision, post 9/11. He warned against the potential political irrelevancy of Latin American issues as the U.S. looks further afield in the fight against global terrorism. Lightheartedly, he pointed out Latin American complaints, on the one hand, about the United States not paying enough attention to the region, and, on the other hand, paying too much attention to the wrong issues.


Jeffrey Davidow is the former ambassador from the United States to Mexico. Davidow, who previously served as Ambassador to Zambia (1988-90) and Venezuela (1993-96), was Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs from 1996 until 1998, when he assumed his post in Mexico and served until 2002. In addition to his ambassadorial positions, he has served in American Embassies in Guatemala, Chile and Venezuela. He also was posted to South Africa and Zimbabwe. Davidow studied at the University of Massachusetts (B.A., 1965), the University of Minnesota (M.A., 1967) and at Osmania University in Hyderabad, India (1968-69). While in the Foreign Service he worked both as a Fellow of the American Political Science Association (1979) and as a Fellow of the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University (1982).

Ambassador Davidow spoke at the Women's Faculty Club, addressing such diverse topics as migration, energy, and the day-to-day business of an embassy.

Representative David Bonior and his wife Judy (left) talk with Harley Shaiken, Chair of the Center, and a fellow attendee after Ambassador Davidow's talk.

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