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  • Center for Binational Institutions

Sub-State Diplomacy & Institutions in US-Mexico relations

Link to publication in Mexico Today

One of the main features of the U.S.-Mexico relationship is the existence of a multiplicity of actors shaping and influencing its evolution. Far from the traditional view where foreign affairs are the prerogative of diplomats at the national level, state and local officials in the U.S. and Mexico routinely interact among themselves and with federal government officials to address bilateral issues impacting their jurisdictions. Frequently, state governors -and even mayors- from both countries engage in what is sometimes referred to as subnational or sub-State diplomacy, borrowing a term from the work of Mexican academic Jorge Schiavon, who has written profusely on the subject.

Given the relevance and political visibility of the challenges that the U.S. and Mexico face at their shared border, it is not surprising that over time state governors on both sides have developed strong and sometimes quite functional relations. To put things in perspective, the combined GDP of all nine U.S. and Mexican border states is equivalent to the output of the world’s fourth or fifth largest economies. Hence border governors have created different mechanisms to address issues of common interest either individually, like in the case of the Arizona-Mexico Commission, or collectively through the Border Governors Conference. These are two good examples of mechanisms that exist as part of the U.S.-Mexico bilateral institutional architecture.

The Arizona-Mexico Commission dates back to 1959 when the then governor of Arizona, Paul J. Fannin, came together with his counterpart -Sonora governor Álvaro Obregón Tapia- “to bring the two states and countries together around shared goals for the region”. Over the years, the Arizona-Mexico Commission has worked on issues ranging from trade and investment to tourism and environmental stewardship.

The Border Governors Conference (BGC) started in 1980 in Nuevo Casas Grandes Chihuahua and held its last meeting in full in 2009. Unfortunately, the BGC has not been revamped since then. The U.S.-Mexico border region presently faces a very difficult moment. The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly disrupted the U.S.-Mexico border in more than one way. The most obvious is the fact that the border has remained closed for non-essential travel since March 2020, creating a significant toll on economic activity along the region. Similarly and as it became evident early on in the pandemic, both sides had a strong interest in getting supply chains up and running as soon as possible. This was especially true for states along the U.S.-Mexico border that concentrate important manufacturing activities. One can easily imagine the BGC working with both federal governments on issues like this. As pointed by the Council on Foreign Relations, the Boder Governors Conference might have suffered from a sprawling agenda making it too cumbersome and mostly becoming a photo opp over the years. Nevertheless, one cannot underestimate the benefits for both countries of having a lean, focused, and revitalized BGC.

The respective federal governments will always have a crucial role in what happens at the U.S.-Mexico border, but the relationship between both countries would benefit from having border state governors meet again regularly in earnest to work on the whole range of bilateral issues they deal with on a daily basis.

Institutions like the Border Governor Conference (BGC) or the Arizona-Mexico Commission are far from perfect but can be extremely useful mechanisms contributing to the overall good of the bilateral relationship. They can serve as very valuable forums for dealing with complex border affairs and as sounding boards for policymaking against which Washington and Mexico City can often do a reality-check. On September 30, the Center for Binational Institutions (CBI), a newly launched initiative by the U.S.-Mexico Foundation, will hold its first annual seminar addressing these issues. Looking closely at the role that binational institutions play might not make the front page but it helps to understand better what the U.S.-Mexico relationship is all about.

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