Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

When the leaders of Mexico and the United States meet for the first time, they'll have a chance to make real progress on issues that have been stalled for decades.

Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto's visit to Washington, D.C. on Tuesday -- just four days before he takes office -- will be the first major test of President Barack Obama's post-election foreign policy. Yes, the reelected U.S. president helped defuse the crisis in Gaza and recently returned from Southeast Asia. But his Asia trip was largely symbolic -- a reaffirmation of Washington's announced "pivot" toward the Pacific region. Resetting U.S.-Mexican relations, meanwhile, could prove more consequential and produce a high payoff for the U.S. economy.

Why? The meeting between Obama and Peña Nieto comes at a particularly promising moment when the two nations have a chance to ease two longstanding sources of bilateral tension and mistrust: immigration and anti-drug policy. And more than at any time since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, both countries have the opportunity to substantially upgrade what is an already robust economic partnership.

President George W. Bush was right when, in 2001, he stated that "the United States has no more important relationship in the world than the one we have with Mexico" -- and it has become far more important since then. With trade between the two countries totaling around $500 billion a year, Mexico is America's second-largest commercial partner -- about equal to China and trailing only Canada. Some projections now foresee Mexico emerging as America's top trading partner in the next 10 years. The demographics are impressive as well; upwards of 32 million U.S. residents are of Mexican origin. They account for more than 10 percent of the U.S. population and more than six out of 10 Latinos. No country in the world sends more of its people to the United States than Mexico, and one out of 10 Mexican citizens now lives in the States -- about half of them with no legal status.

The decisive impact of the Latino vote on the outcome of this year's U.S. presidential election has dramatically increased the prospects for immigration reform in the next year or so. For the first time in decades, both Republicans and Democrats have powerful incentives to reconsider the country's divisive immigration policies.

Neither party should have difficulty coming up with arguments for fixing the broken immigration system. Besides making U.S. immigration laws more humane, a new policy approach would be a boon to the struggling U.S. economy. In the past decade, immigrants have accounted for more than half the increase in America's working-age population. They fill crucial jobs, fuel economic growth and productivity, and help sustain the Social Security system. By addressing critical labor demands and giving law-abiding migrants the opportunity for legal employment and additional training, sensible immigration reform would multiply these economic contributions. And no single policy change would do more to ease friction and build goodwill in U.S.-Mexican relations.

American citizens tend to view the country's immigration problem in terms of the large number of undocumented immigrants residing in the United States and the ongoing flows of unauthorized migrants into the country. But Mexicans have a different set of concerns. They focus on how their compatriots are treated in the United States and how some six to seven million undocumented Mexicans in the country can gain the legal standing and rights they now lack. Like U.S. Latinos generally, Mexicans find the debates over immigration insulting (Mitt Romney's suggestion that undocumented immigrants should "self-deport" was particularly offensive). Mexican leaders of all political stripes criticize U.S. immigration laws as unjust, disrespectful, and cruel, and regularly call for reforms. But they know how counterproductive it can be to intrude forcefully into U.S. disputes on immigration.

Beyond immigration, Peña Nieto and his advisors consider energy policy one of their highest priorities on a far-reaching agenda of economic reform. Their two main challenges are to 1) free Mexico's national oil company, PEMEX, from the suffocating constitutional and regulatory constraints that keep production and revenue low, and 2) allow for the large-scale exploitation of the world's fourth-largest deposits of shale gas. Oil production in Mexico has plummeted by nearly 25 percent from its peak in 2004 and reserves continue to shrink. Unless officials take action, Mexico could be a net oil importer by the end of the decade. If, however, the Mexican government succeeds, even modestly, in opening its hydrocarbon sector to private and foreign exploration and investment, it would be a game-changer for both Mexico and the United States. Mexico would gain access to the capital and technology -- including deep-sea drilling -- the country requires to remain a major oil exporter and take full advantage of its potential wealth in shale gas. Energy reform in Mexico could also set the stage for a genuine North American energy market, to the benefit of all three NAFTA partners. And greater energy production in Mexico should mean less U.S. dependence on oil from the Middle East and other distant and/or troubled parts of the world.

To be sure, the political obstacles to energy reform in Mexico are formidable. They include the country's history of energy nationalism and the fact that a serious easing of current restrictions on hydrocarbon exploitation cannot proceed without multiple changes in Mexico's constitution, which will require a difficult-to-obtain two-thirds majority in Congress. Still, there are reasons for optimism, including the growing acknowledgement by Mexican leaders across the political spectrum of the escalating costs of the status quo. The legislature's two largest parties, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and National Action Party (PAN), both support energy reform and together enjoy a majority in Congress. It is widely anticipated that they will remain allied for the coming year, and they may be able to draw sufficient votes from smaller parties to amend the Constitution. The determined leadership of Peña Nieto, who is viewed in Mexico as a talented, pragmatic politician, will be essential. For its part, the United States knows that its interests will be best served by staying out of Mexico's debates about the country's energy future.

Over the past six years, Mexico's annual homicide rate has more than doubled to some 20 murders per 100,000 people. The extent and brutality of the violence, fueled by drug trafficking and largely carried out by organized criminal gangs, has proven to be a particularly harrowing test for the two neighbors. Yet while security collaboration between the two countries is closer than ever, drug-related violence remains a major source of contention in the bilateral relationship. Many Mexicans blame their public security problems on America's voracious appetite for drugs, and see the U.S. commitment to finding a solution as half-hearted at best. They believe the United States is not doing nearly enough to reduce its demand for illicit drugs and curtail the flow of profits and arms to Mexican drug gangs. The United States has repeatedly acknowledged its shared responsibility for Mexico's crime and drug problems, and is working closely with the country's security forces to address them. But Washington has been slow to alter its basic prohibitionist and enforcement-focused approach to drug control.

The election-day referendums legalizing marijuana use in Colorado and Washington provide a new opportunity for the United States and Mexico to reduce current tensions and perhaps even resolve some of their differences over drug and security issues. When they meet, Obama and Peña Nieto should, at a minimum, set the stage for a significant and continuing bilateral discussion about alternative anti-drug policies. Mexico's outgoing president, Felipe Calderón, has consistently endorsed the search for fresh approaches, including a hard look at some legalization measures. Peña Nieto appears ready to modify the country's security approach by, among other things, focusing on violence reduction and deemphasizing drug interdiction.

For its part, the Obama administration has shown a willingness to indulge a discussion of new policies and has declared that the United States is no longer fighting a "war on drugs." But it has not yet seriously pursued other options. Indeed, it is unclear how tolerant the administration will be of marijuana use in Colorado and Washington. Still, it would make a good deal of sense for the U.S. and Mexican governments to begin a systematic exploration of alternative drug strategies, including a study of the likely security and health consequences of different approaches to marijuana legalization.

It has now become routine for Mexican presidents-elect, in advance of their inaugurations, to travel to Washington to meet with their U.S. counterpart -- a powerful symbol of the close and important relationship between the two countries. This week's conversation, however, should emphasize substance, not symbols. The key role that Latino voters played in the U.S. election has pushed immigration policy to the top of the U.S. political agenda, while Peña Nieto has consistently highlighted his commitment to energy reform since his electoral victory in July. And both presidents have expressed their dissatisfaction with the way the war on drugs has been conducted.

Success will not come easy on any of these issues; it has been decades since even modest headway was made on any of them. But the shifting political climate in both countries has now paved the way for change. If they take advantage of that opening this week, the U.S. and Mexican presidents will have four full years to work together and make it happen.

John Moore/Getty Images


The Lady and the General

Meet the political odd couple driving democratic reform in Burma.

The most unlikely of political partners are driving the astonishing democratic transition in Burma. One of them is no surprise: Aung San Suu Kyi, the inspirational global icon who for recent generations has defined nonviolent struggle against oppression. The other, President Thein Sein, is an unassuming former general who rose to the senior ranks of the very military junta seen as responsible for Burma's decades of misery, but then had the courage to steer the country in a new direction. Neither sought this unusual pairing, but together they represent the most hopeful turn for Burma in half a century.

Burma before World War II served as one of the rice bowls of Asia, and its people aspired to the region's best standards of health, education, and prosperity. But the country's darker post-colonial legacies included bitter ethnic divides and an unfortunate role in the center of the neighborhood's Cold War intrigue, as the Soviet Union, China, and the United States each vied for strategic position and ideological cohorts. Following a 1962 coup, the military justified the decades of misrule to come by the need to hold the country together with whatever force necessary and resist any form of foreign domination -- real or imagined. The generals drove the country to ruin.

By 2009, there were few overt signs of any real change, but President Obama launched a tentative, exploratory effort to woo Burma out of its isolation. On my first visit, in early 2010, I met both Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein, then the prime minister as well as No. 4 in the ruling junta. The contrast between the two could not have been greater. I was permitted to meet Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon at an old Russian-built hotel, a relic of Burma's Cold War ambivalence. She was delivered to the hotel from her solitary house arrest, and we talked for three hours about her hopes for a new Burma. She was predictably inspiring, reflecting a steely determination and optimism that contrasted sharply with the stark setting, and displayed a thorough grasp of international developments that belied her nearly two decades in isolation under house arrest. She described in detail her daily ritual of listening to the BBC World Service and Voice of America as a kind of preparation for the role she could then barely imagine -- but today is playing. The regime cropped her out of a photo of my visit published in the state-run newspaper.

I met Thein Sein in Naypyidaw, the remote new capital where the generals had abruptly sequestered themselves a few years earlier. Largely unresponsive to our offer for a meaningful dialogue, he and his fellow generals showed no sign of willingness to engage with Aung San Suu Kyi or implement any serious reforms. Thein Sein seemed an unlikely strongman, reserved and mild-mannered in his heavily starched olive-green uniform. But in that first meeting, with his careful military cadence and cautious manner, he gave no indication of any of the ideas of reform that have come to animate his time as president.

This past September, just three short years later, Aung San Suu Kyi stepped off a plane for her first visit to the United States in four decades, this time as a freely elected member of Burma's new parliament. She came both for a victory lap -- she was to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, among many other honors -- and to do the serious work of encouraging renewed Burmese links to and support from the international community. During her visit, Thein Sein arrived in the United States carrying a similar message, which he would deliver in his address to the United Nations General Assembly, the first by a Burmese head of state in decades, and in an official meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "The people and government of Burma have been taking tangible irreversible steps in the democratic transition and reform process," he said. While in New York, he met privately with Aung San Suu Kyi, as they had several times previously in Burma. Their partnership is an unlikely one, but the symbolism of their encounter in New York was a powerful indication of the distance they, and their country, had covered.

Their relationship began with a dinner in the spring of 2011 prepared by Thein Sein's wife in the couple's modest home and presented under a painting of Aung San, Burma's revered independence leader and the father of Aung San Suu Kyi. Warily, tentatively, the two compared shared hopes for the country's rebirth. That first meeting set the stage for the breathtaking changes in Burma following the retirement in 2011 of the junta's geriatric strongman, Than Shwe. Thein Sein's government has since released hundreds of political prisoners; eased draconian restrictions on speech, assembly, and movement; established cease-fires with most insurgent ethnic groups; and launched a wobbly electoral process that eventually allowed Aung San Suu Kyi's once-banned opposition party, the National League for Democracy, to take legislative seats, 22 years after the junta ignored the party's stunning national election victory.

Many explanations have been offered for Burma's sudden opening -- from geopolitics to unrelenting global pressure -- but I believe the personal experiences of these two remarkable individuals have much to do with it. The U.S. government and key congressional allies stood resolutely with Aung San Suu Kyi and other Burmese freedom fighters through the darkest days of their struggle, and she knew we could be counted on to help Burma when the regime finally relented.

Thein Sein arrived at the need to overturn the old order by a very different path. His role as prime minister and designated face to the outside world brought him to regional capitals that decades earlier appeared as poor cousins to cosmopolitan Rangoon but now were thriving hubs of modernity. Burma's failure must have been manifest, and its status as a pariah state, increasingly an embarrassment for many countries in Southeast Asia, would have been painful to defend.

Sustaining reform's momentum will be difficult. Much will depend on getting others to follow the courageous example of Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein in setting aside bitter enmities and deep distrust for the common good. Their shared stake in a better future led both leaders to take off a uniform -- she the mantle of international sainthood and he the insignia of the military institution that brought him to absolute power. Having done so, they can now meet on equal terms, as citizen and patriot, striving and struggling together for a new Burma. Along the way, they are inspiring us all.

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images