History, interdependence and asymmetric power have hindered Mexican public diplomacy for nearly three decades, contributing to a cycle of bold efforts, a domestic and international backlash, and self-imposed restraint. Until the late 1970s, an unsystematic promotion of Mexican culture dominated the Mexican government’s public diplomacy efforts. Even though the country has made more concerted efforts since then, the strategies employed have been inconsistent and only marginally effective at modifying Mexico’s image abroad. This unimpressive record reflects the history of Mexican foreign policy and the country’s unique geostrategic position as a developing country tightly integrated economically and demographically with a superpower on its border.

During much of the 20th century, Mexico had little need for a foreign policy designed to promote the country’s interests internationally. Mexico’s insular economic development model in an era prior to globalization, lack of real border conflicts and the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella helped shield the country from international developments. This reality allowed Mexico to develop a principled, legalistic foreign policy that did not require the systematic use of public diplomacy. While Mexico has actively promoted its culture abroad, the driver of this cultural diplomacy was Mexican pride in its rich cultural heritage rather than a reasoned public diplomacy strategy. As a result, when the time came for Mexico to think more strategically about public diplomacy, it lacked the experience needed to employ these foreign policy instruments well.[i]

Mexico’s relative isolation from global affairs also allowed the government to use foreign policy as a tool in domestic politics without suffering serious international repercussions. Modern Mexico is a direct descendant of the country’s revolution, from 1911 to 1917, fought in the name of peasant and labor rights and against imperialist oppression and the Catholic Church. Revolutionary acts such as land reform, union empowerment and anti-imperialism became central to the legitimacy of its post-revolutionary governments. As the Mexican economy grew to be more capitalist and pro-business during the 1950s and 1960s, however, the aggressive promotion of peasant and labor rights became more difficult. Foreign policy thus developed into a favored tool for demonstrating the government’s revolutionary credentials. This helps explain Mexico’s enduring support for the Cuban revolution, its leadership of developing country demands during the 1970s for increased economic assistance and an expanded decision-making role in international affairs, and its steadfast opposition to U.S. military intervention throughout the world during the Cold War.   

The tendency to target this “revolutionary” foreign policy against the United States is further due to Mexico’s difficult history with its northern neighbor. Mexico has a long history of unpleasant experiences with the United States, beginning immediately after Mexican Independence when the U.S. Ambassador actively promoted a government favorable to U.S. interests and continuing with the U.S.-Mexican War (1846-1848) in which Mexico ceded nearly half its territory to the United States, the naval occupation of Mexico’s principle port in 1914, and a military intervention led by General Pershing in 1917. This history is taught to every school child and forms the basis of a Mexican nationalism born of the Revolution and steeped in anti-Americanism. Nevertheless, since Mexico only rarely took positions the United States considered provocative and never posed a direct security threat to the United States, U.S. governments have generally ignored Mexico’s anti-imperialist and occasionally anti-American rhetoric in the interest of reinforcing the stability of a non-threatening regime on its southern border. The combination of Mexico’s revolutionary heritage, its history with the United States and the U.S. willingness to ignore the anti-imperialist cast of Mexican international behavior spawned an increased reliance on foreign policy as a domestic political tool as the economic and political legitimacy of the post-revolutionary regime began to fade in the late 1960s and 1970s. This reality would complicate Mexico’s late 20th century efforts to use public diplomacy to improve its image and thereby its relationship with the United States.

The need to think more strategically about public diplomacy was impressed on Mexico during the 1970s as a consequence of its growing integration with the U.S. economy. During the 1960s, incipient globalization in the world economy dovetailed with successful Mexican efforts to promote growth by attracting U.S. investment and tourism. The result was a gradual erosion of Mexico’s economic insularity and its parallel acquisition of real international interests that could be damaged by a “revolutionary” foreign policy pursued for domestic political gain.[ii] This fact was made abundantly clear following Mexico’s 1975 vote in the United Nations Security Council supporting a resolution equating Zionism with racism. In response, the American Jewish community organized an effective and very costly boycott of Mexican tourist destinations. Events during the 1970s also impressed on Mexico how its interdependence with the United States meant that domestic actions could unintentionally undermine the country’s international image and harm its national interests. In the wake of violent crackdowns on student protesters in 1968, the Mexican government implemented a series of anti-business economic policies designed to demonstrate its “revolutionary” cast. These actions angered Mexican businessmen and scared off U.S. investors, paving the way for Mexico’s 1976 peso devaluation and economic crisis. 

Mexico’s 1986 decision to open its economy to international trade and the 1993 NAFTA trade agreement dramatically deepened its economic interdependence with the United States, making a sound bilateral relationship key to Mexican national interests. Yet the domestic policy utility of anti-Americanism in Mexican foreign policy remained largely intact. A public diplomacy strategy aimed at rebranding Mexico as a loyal partner of the United States thus tended to produce a backlash at home as opposition politicians attempted to exploit the anti-American overtones of Mexico’s revolutionary brand of nationalism.

This process of economic integration has also extended to the explosive growth of the drug trade since the 1980s. Mexican memories of past U.S. interventions, reinforced by revolutionary nationalism, however, produced suspicions about the real motive behind the U.S. drug war. Concerns that deeper cooperation would lead to increased U.S. political influence in Mexican domestic affairs hindered Mexico’s ability to cooperate effectively and frustrated U.S. officials for years. Mexico’s growing demographic integration with the United States, meanwhile, has established an additional obstacle for Mexican public diplomacy. Efforts to use cultural and educational diplomacy to improve Mexico’s image among U.S. citizens of Mexican descent and Mexican immigrants, both legal and undocumented, have been greeted by loud complaints that Mexico is trying to interject itself into U.S. politics by creating an ethnic lobby sympathetic to its interests.[iii]

The public diplomacy implications of the economic and demographic interdependence between Mexico and the United States are further complicated by the power differential between these two neighbors. It is inevitable that the enormous asymmetry of power in this bilateral relationship will cultivate feelings of superiority and arrogance among Americans and feelings of vulnerability and resentment among Mexicans. Mexico’s public diplomacy in the United States thus has constantly been on the defensive, fighting against perceptions of Mexico as a backward, violent, insecure and corrupt country. While poll after poll have demonstrated that Americans have generally warm feelings toward Mexico, the opportunity to exploit and build on these sentiments has been limited.

Despite the constraints of history, interdependence and power asymmetries, Mexico has twice pursued a comprehensive public diplomacy strategy to rebrand Mexico in the minds of Americans, from 1989 to 1994 and from 2000 to 2002. The Mexican government initiated its first wide-reaching public diplomacy strategy following the 1989 decision to negotiate a trade agreement with the United States. The strategy’s objective was to win approval of NAFTA in the U.S. Congress and it included an aggressive lobbying campaign in Washington, DC, a systematic attempt to build a “Mexico lobby” among U.S. citizens of Mexican descent, and a multi-faceted public relations campaign to sell the image of Mexico as both a responsible partner of the United States and a modernizing country on the brink of joining the first world.[iv] The strategy included high profile arrests of Mexican drug traffickers, a series of dramatic economic reforms, trips to Mexico for members of the U.S. Congress to witness these changes, constant reminders of the Ivy League pedigrees of Mexico’s new generation of leaders, and the explicit promise that NAFTA would make the Mexican economy flourish and thereby reduce migration. While this campaign did help win NAFTA’s approval in 1993, it also generated a sharp backlash in both countries following Mexico’s ensuing economic crisis and multi-billion dollar bailout from the United States. Mexicans and Americans felt deceived by Mexico’s “propaganda campaign,” undermining support for NAFTA in both countries, seriously damaging Mexico’s image in the United States, reviving Mexican doubts about closer ties with the United States, and producing a severe setback for Mexico’s public diplomacy.

Six years later the election of an opposition president, Vicente Fox, solidified Mexico’s transition to democracy and opened another window of opportunity for Mexican public diplomacy. This time, Mexico’s policy objective was the expansion of NAFTA beyond the free flow of goods, services and investment to include two items that would benefit Mexico greatly — free labor flows and economic development assistance. The government again concluded that success depended on changing the image of Mexico in the United States. It thus exploited Fox’s election as proof that Mexico had finally become a democracy and reinforced this democratic image by aggressively promoting democracy and human rights abroad. It marketed the appealing image of President Fox as the underdog who defeated a 70-year old authoritarian regime and as a bilingual, charismatic former Coca-Cola executive dedicated to a market economy. It employed lobbyists and increased cooperation in the drug war. Additionally, it adopted an aggressive cultural diplomacy strategy that included opening Mexican cultural institutes in key foreign cities and sending young artists, film directors and writers abroad as cultural ambassadors.[v] The centerpiece of the strategy, however, was an effort to reach a migration agreement with the United States. Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda calculated that such an agreement would not only benefit Mexico economically, it would eliminate a constant irritant in the bilateral relationship that perpetuated the image of Mexico in American minds as a problem rather than an opportunity.[vi] But migration was a domestic matter rather than a purely foreign policy issue for the United States and the negotiations quickly stalled amid the often byzantine character of U.S. congressional and interest group politics, magnified by occasional Mexican policy missteps. Even before the September 11 terrorist attacks nullified any chance of reaching a migration accord, negotiations had become bogged down.[vii] 

The Fox administration’s embrace of the United States, meanwhile, generated nationalist discomfort at home, including opposition complaints that Fox was surrendering Mexican sovereignty to the “gringos.” This domestic discomfort broke into the open in the aftermath of 9/11 when a small but significant portion of politicians and editorialists expressed publically what many Mexicans were feeling privately — that the imperialists had gotten what they deserved. This reaction left President Fox paralyzed, unable to quickly and formally express Mexican sympathies for the loss of life for fear of the domestic political repercussions. For Americans, this reaction merely demonstrated Mexico’s unreliability as a neighbor and partner. Although Mexico would try for another year to achieve approval for a migration agreement, the window of opportunity had passed. Without a migration agreement, the opposition began to paint Fox’s effort to create a better relationship with the United States as merely caving into U.S. demands without receiving anything in return. Mexico’s second effort at rebranding itself in the United States was over.

In the wake each of Mexico’s aggressive rebranding efforts — the post NAFTA backlash and the failed Fox effort — Mexican public diplomacy toward the United States retreated into a largely defensive posture. Rather than employ a comprehensive strategy to affect the broad “Mexico brand,” Mexican public diplomacy adopted a risk-averse strategy designed to avoid the policy pitfalls created by facts of Mexican history, interdependencies and power asymmetries.[viii] Current Mexican public diplomacy incorporates three core elements: a sharply focused effort to promote tourism, trade and investment; a visit diplomacy program for members of the U.S. government; and low-key cultural, educational and sports programs directed at the Mexican and Mexican-American communities in the United States. Mexico also kept a low profile during the 2006-2007 immigration debate, employing a lobbing strategy that flew under the radar rather than a more public form of diplomacy. This strategy of self-imposed restraint is a pragmatic response to the historic and structural realities of the U.S.-Mexico relationship. It is designed to maximize policy gains while reducing the risk of a counterproductive policy backlash at home or in the United States. And it reflects the peculiar constraints on the public diplomacy of a developing middle power that is interdependent with a much more powerful neighbor. 

Pamela K. Starr is the director of the U.S.-Mexico Network, a senior fellow at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, and a Associate Professor in Public Diplomacy and the School of International Relations. Dr. Starr is an active speaker, commentator, and author on Mexican politics, economics and foreign policy, and on economic reform and policy making in Latin America.


[i] On the history of Mexican foreign policy see Alan Knight, “Dealing with the American political System:  An Historical Overview 1910-1995”, in Rodolfo O. de la Garza and Jesus Velasco, eds., Bridging the Border: Transforming Mexico-U.S. Relations (Lanham, MD:  Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1997): 1-31, and Pamela K. Starr, “Mexican Foreign Policy”, in Laura Randall, ed. The Changing Structure of Mexico: Political, Social and Economic Prospects, 2nd edition (M.E. Sharpe, 2005), 49-57.   On Mexican cultural diplomacy see Fabiola Rodriguez Barba.  “La diplomacia cultural de Mexico”, Real Instituto Elcano, October 7, 2008.  http://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/wps/portal/rielcano/contenido?WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/Elcano_es/Zonas_es/Lengua+y+Cultura/ARI78-2008

[ii] Jorge Chabat, “Mexico’s Foreign Policy after NAFTA:  The Tools of Interdependence” in De la Garza and Velasco, eds., pp. 33-4.

[iii] Carlos Gonzalez Gutierrez, “Decentralized Diplomacy:  The Role of Consular Offices in Mexico’s relations with its Diaspora”, in De la Garza and Velasco, pp. 49-67.

[iv] Todd A. Eisenstadt, “The Rise of the Mexico Lobby in Washington:  Even Further from God, and Even Loser to the United States”, in De la Garza and Velasco, pp. 89-124; and author interview with Luis de la Calle, Mexico’s lead NAFTA lobbyist, 5 June 2009, Mexico City.

[v] Andres Rosenthal, “Fox’s Foreign Policy Agenda: Global and Regional Priorities”, in Susan Kaufman Purcell and Luis Rubio, eds.,  Mexico Under Fox (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2004), pp.  87-114, and Rodriguez Barba.

[vi] Author interview with Jorge Castañeda, former Mexican Foreign Minister, Mexico City, 1 June 2009.

[vii] Pamela K. Starr and David R. Ayon, “El interludio Castañeda y el sueño de América del Norte”, in Rafael Fernandez de Castro, ed., En la frontera del Imperio, (Mexico City, Mexico: Ariel, 2003), 121-135.

[viii] On the 1994-2000 era, Susan Kaufman Purcell, “The New U.S.-Mexico Relationship”, in Susan Kaufman Purcell and Luis Rubio, eds.,  “Mexico Under Zedillo” (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1998) pp. 101-125.   On current policy, “Politica Exterior Responsible” in Presidente Felipe Calderon Hinojosa, Segundo informe de gobierno (September 2008). http://www.informe.gob.mx/resumen/?contenido=11# ; author interview with Bruno Ferrari, CEO, ProMéxico (trade and investment promotion agency within the Ministry of Economy) and Juan Marcos Gutiérrez-González, Mexican Consul General, Los Angeles, 28 April 2009.