El Peso del Mundo

Understanding Mexico’s Grand Strategy

By Danny Sitko

Mexico is widely regarded as a middle power[1] in the international stage, due to its general lack of military power and world presence[2]– even in the context of Mexico’s wealthy $2.4 trillion economy[3]. Mexico largely followed a pattern of nonintervention in global politics, as championed by the Juarez Doctrine of 1910[4], until a series of crises in many Latin American countries during the late 20th century. From the 1980s on, Mexico practiced a grand strategy is best understood through the liberal framework because of the state’s pursuit of economic interdependence with the globalized world and numerous attempts to formulate collective security agreements with other liberal republics.

Mexico has grown to rely on an economic interdependent system since the failure of its import substitution model and default in 1982. Finding it could not create sufficient domestic demand to match its rate of production, Mexico was forced to look to switch to an export-based economic model in order to achieve economic recovery. As such, in the 1990s Mexico began pursuing free-trade policies, with President Salinas and President Bush Sr. announcing in June of 1990 that the U.S. and Mexico would eliminate trade barriers between the two countries[5]. Since the signing of NAFTA in 1994, Mexico’s economy has become increasingly globalized and interconnected. In 2012, Mexico entered the Pacific Alliance free trade group alongside Peru, Colombia, and Chile. The state currently has free trade agreements with 46 countries, with over 90% of the country’s trade being conducted under such accords3. The failure of the ISI model and Mexico’s subsequent reliance on interdependent trading relationships with other countries point to an inability for structural realist theory to explain Mexican economic grand strategy. Kenneth Waltz posits that states would not pursue interdependence or cooperation with other nations because these relationships decrease state independence and raise vulnerability. Indeed, states like the U.S., which is Mexico’s second largest market for exports and third largest market for imports3, could wreak havoc on the Mexican state if it were to suddenly cut off all trade. Mexico’s reliance on the global market and international economic cooperation through free trade deals points towards a decidedly liberal framework with which to view its grand strategy.

A second defining characteristic of Mexico’s grand strategy is seen in the country’s valorization of peace accords and alliances in place of offensive or defensive realist strategies. Mexico’s strategic foreign policy has been described by scholars as one that, “invokes international law and multilateralism as mainstays for integration into international society, using peace and disarmament as spearheads for action.”[6] Mexico has relied on forming international bonds with other similarly liberal democracies to work towards quelling instability in its immediate geographic neighbors. An illustrative example of one such organization was the Contadora group, an alliance between Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama to “provide a diplomatic alternative to the rapidly intensifying armed conflicts in the [Latin American] region.”[7] After a long period of talks and diplomacy, the group came to a unanimous agreement over a program for peace, named Contadora’s 21 Points. These points provided guidelines for how the countries would work to stop the arms race occurring in Central America, end foreign interference in the region, and work to reestablish stable democratic systems7. Future Mexican presidents would continue the state’s involvement in multinational alliances and peace accords, with President Salinas starting his term in 1990 by taking a diplomatic tour of Latin America, in which 25 cooperation agreements were signed5. Vicente Fox, president of Mexico in the early 2000s, would push for the country’s, “vigorous participation in the United Nations.”6 In present day Mexico, the administration still espouses the same belief in multilateral solutions to state-wide, or region-wide, issues, and has relied on its partnership with the United States as another liberal democracy to combine resources when facing instability. This sentiment was reaffirmed by Mexico’s secretary of foreign relations in a recent press conference when he said the following about addressing arms control in Central America partnered with the U.S. [translated], “Thus, it is a binational issue; that is where I started this intervention. It cannot be resolved by one country alone; we have to work together. Thus, more cooperation, better results.”[8] Mexico’s grand strategy of reliance on international order and peace accords to mitigate interstate conflict fits nicely within liberal theory, which contends that like-nations can form alliances out of the bonds of mutual respect of liberal democracy. Mexico certainly had many chances to take advantage of regional instability and increase its power, but it ceded this opportunity in favor of peaceful partnership with other neighboring countries.

When then-candidate Andrés Obrador was first campaigning for the presidency in the previous election, one of his campaign slogans read, “There’s no better foreign policy than the domestic policy.”6 This statement can be interpreted as a quite literal endorsement of liberalism, that the nation’s foreign policy comes from what the public voted was appropriate for itself. Mexico’s domestic need for economic recovery lead to a pursuit of neoliberal economic policies of free trade, resulting its current reliance on economic cooperation and interdependence. Mexico’s domestic respect for similar liberal republics can explain its deference of autonomy and power to international organizations and peaceful cooperation treaties. For these reasons, Mexico’s grand strategy is best explained by a liberal framework.


[1] Mares, David R. “Mexico’s Foreign Policy as a Middle Power: The Nicaragua Connection, 1884-1986.” Latin American Research Review, vol. 23, no. 3, 1988, pp. 81–107. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2503425.

[2]Doyle, Kate. “The Blind Man and the Elephant Reporting on the Mexican Military.” The National Security Archive, National Security Archive, 19 Apr. 2004, nsarchive2.gwu.edu//NSAEBB/NSAEBB120/index.htm.

[3] “The World Factbook: Mexico.” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, 1 Feb. 2018, http://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/mx.html#Econ.

[4] Galeana, Patricia. “Juárez, Statesman.” Universidad Nacional Autónoma De México, Universidad Nacional Autónoma De México, http://www.revistascisan.unam.mx/Voices/pdfs/7514.pdf.

[5] Chabat, Jorge. “Mexico’s Foreign Policy in 1990: Electoral Sovereignty and Integration with the United States.” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, vol. 33, no. 4, 1991, pp. 1–25. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/165877.

[6] Villanueva, C. and Tadeo Hernández, E.L. (2019), Mexican Foreign Policy and Diplomacy: From Defensive Tradition to Incomplete Modernity. Politics Policy, 47: 28-49. doi:10.1111/polp.12286

[7] Bagley, Bruce Michael. “Contadora: The Failure of Diplomacy.” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, vol. 28, no. 3, 1986, pp. 1–32. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/165705.

[8] Casaubón, Marcelo Ebrard. “29.11.19 Versión Estenográfica De La Conferencia De Prensa Matutina Del Presidente Andrés Manuel López Obrador.” Gobierno De México, Gobierno De México, 29 Nov. 2019, presidente.gob.mx/29-11-19-version-estenografica-de-la-conferencia-de-prensa-matutina-del-presidente-andres-manuel-lopez-obrador/.