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Federalism, Policymaking and the United States-Mexican Border

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Mauricio Covarrubias
December 16, 2021

Increasingly public administration practitioners, scholars and students must deal with issues that do not respect established political boundaries. As the COVID-19 pandemic is showing us, a new generation of complex and interconnected problems requires improvements not only in decisionmaking processes within countries, but also between them.

In this context of interdependence, addressing the problems that affect Mexico and the United States, who share a geographical border over 3000 km long, requires comprehensive and coordinated policies at the national and binational levels. The problems affecting both countries are far too complex to presume that they can be solved unilaterally or through actions based solely on the border region. What we need is leadership and reasonable compromise on both sides of the border so that we can arrive at the right mix of policies in both countries. Until this happens, we will not progress. 

This shared border is arguably the region that most clearly reveals this bilateral interdependence. Arturo Sarukhan, former Mexican ambassador to the United States, defined this critical bilateral relationship as follows: “… No country has such a direct profound impact on Mexico as the United States. No country has such a profound and direct impact on the well-being of the United States as Mexico.”

Severely affected and under pressure for action, the border tends to be the main reference point around which both governments build their responses. However, a more comprehensive approach is needed because border issues are an expression of broader social, economic and political phenomena.

As neighboring nations, Mexico and the United States face a common set of chronic problems such as drug trafficking, organized crime, environmental degradation, water scarcity, natural disasters, immigration and now infectious diseases such as SARS-CoV-2. All these issues fall into the category of problems that no nation can tackle alone. As federal republics, this represents a great challenge for the governments of the United States and Mexico. This is because forging national and bilateral solutions involves empowering government at all levels (including state and local) and substantially improving coordination within and between two countries, based on a strategic and shared vision of the problems they want to solve.

Ingram and Fiederlein, in their article, “Traversing Boundaries: a Public Policy Approach To the Analysis of Foreign Policy,” point out that foreign policy is in many ways an extension of domestic politics. Internal political concerns are likely to trump international considerations when the policy issues at stake weigh heavily upon domestic political interests and institutions: “The study of foreign policymaking so far has been only partially informed by the insights of the students of domestic public policy.” This gap is unfortunate, for it hampers our understanding of foreign policies with strong domestic implications, particularly binational problems arising between nations with a shared boundary.

One consequence of the problems facing both nations is the lowering of the threshold for unilateral action. In, “Treating Networks Seriously: Practical and Research-Based Agendas in Public Administration,” O’Toole suggests that policies addressing complex issues will increasingly require collaborative structures for implementation. This increased scope of coordinated decisionmaking has profound implications for the functioning of the federal system on both sides of the border, because achieving greater coherence and effectiveness will require greater coordination within and between the two countries.

Because the need for coordination will be higher, what is needed to deal effectively with bilateral problems is a type of coordination that can only come from a comprehensive approach. In this context, two things are imperative. First, we must recognize that the responsibility and management of critical issues overwhelm governments within each federation; and second, we must extend this premise to the relationship between the two countries.

There are no shortcuts to binational coordination, because the decisionmaking authority and the political will to implement binational solutions are still rooted in each country. This means that the effectiveness of actions between Mexico and the United States will depend on the existence of comprehensive policies on both sides of the border, which can only be achieved through systemic action based on the principles of federalism. Given their level of interdependence, the need for coordination within each country must be considered together with the need for coordination between the two federations. As two neighboring countries organized under the principle of federalism, interdependence means that while the public policy agenda may become more binational, the modalities of implementation remain local.

For example, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson noted that governors on both sides have been forced to address binational issues, but have done so without resources and without federal leadership. Richardson also believes that if problems are addressed in each country on a comprehensive national basis rather than piecemeal, it would be very beneficial.

Solving the common problems that afflict Mexico and the United States requires articulated policies at the national and binational levels. Although interdependencies within each country lead politicians to advocate comprehensive national policies, their reluctance to accept that this is also necessary at the bilateral level hampers the day-to-day activities of many government agencies on each side of the border. And when there is no meaning and coherence at a national level, it is difficult to find these things bilaterally. The inescapable conclusion is that the development of comprehensive policies in each country is a prerequisite for arriving at effective binational policies.

Author: Mauricio Covarrubias is Professor at the National Institute of Public Administration in Mexico. He co-founder and Vice President since 2014, of the International Academy of Political-Administrative Sciences (IAPAS). He is the founder and Editor of the International Journal of Studies on Educational Systems (RIESED). Coordinator in Mexico of the TOGIVE Project: Transatlantic Open Government Virtual Education, of the ERASMUS + Program of the European Union. Member of the National System of Researchers of CONACYT. He received his Ph.D. from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @OMCovarrubias and LinkedIn @ http://linkedin.com/in/mauricio-covarrubias-2b49bb57

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