Luis Videgaray, Mexican foreign policy and the open contempt for expertise

6 January 2017, 2335 EST

For the past few months, I’ve been observing with horror all the cabinet appointments in the incoming Trump administration and the Theresa May government .  As someone who originally did a PhD with the intent to become a career diplomat (and yes, I realize there’s a foreign civil service pathway to achieve precisely that goal), to me expertise in top-level agencies was more than a mere technicality: it was a requirement. I wanted a PhD in international relations or political science because I wanted to be knowledgeable about the dynamics of global affairs, diplomacy and state-to-state relationships. Thus, watching Prime Minister May appoint Boris Johnson as foreign secretary and PEOTUS Trump appoint Exxon Mobil chairman Rex Tillerson to the State Department was shocking. To me, these kinds of appointments signal a complete disdain for expertise, career service and the foreign civil service structures and legacies.

Then came embattled Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto with the cherry on top. Peña Nieto has rescued his long-time aide from the depths of scorn and made him Foreign Affairs minister, substituting Claudia Ruiz Massieu (the niece of former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari). Videgaray was the political operator of Trump’s visit to Mexico, the former finance minister, and was ousted after Peña Nieto was heavily criticized because of his willingness to host Trump and the fact that he extended an invitation to the then Republican candidate. Trump has been openly adversarial toward Mexico and Mexicans from the beginning of his campaign, and has repeatedly said that the US under his leadership would be building a wall and that he’d make Mexico pay for it.

Videgaray’s appointment is widely perceived as one of the worst in the history of Mexican foreign ministries at a time when Mexico needs a foreign affairs secretary with diplomatic skills and experience in international negotiations and who is well versed in how international organizations work. Mexico isn’t lacking in career diplomats and ambassadors at all. Many Mexicans have occupied top global positions with great success. Former Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs Rosario Green Llaguno was UN Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs under Boutros-Boutros Ghali and then became coordinator for women’s issues across the UN. Alicia Barcena is Executive Director of the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). José Angel Gurria, also former Secretary of Foreign Affairs, is the Secretary General of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Patricia Espinosa, who completed her term as Foreign Affairs Secretary under former President Felipe Calderon, became the Executive Director of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in May of 2016. There is ample expertise and experienced specialists in Mexico on global affairs, and well-prepared career diplomats, academics and civil society leaders. If the current Mexican president were interested in having a top-notch diplomat heading the Foreign Affairs, he had plenty competent, knowledgeable and experienced people to choose from. Why would Peña Nieto choose to appoint a Foreign Affairs minister with absolutely zero knowledge of the inner workings of diplomacy and international relations?

That was the kicker in these discussions (search Twitter for “estoy aquí para aprender“, Spanish for “I am here to learn“). During his appointment acceptance speech, Videgaray said “I’m not a diplomat, I don’t even know how the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs works, I say this with humility – I am here to learn” (link in Spanish). This apparent humility soon became fodder for memes and a slew of angry tweets.

Though there is some research on the Mexican domestic level civil service, there is very little work studying the professionalization of the Mexican foreign service.   Nevertheless, it is clear that having well-trained, expert, career civil servants is fundamental for the proper functioning of government, even more so for foreign affairs agencies.  Nieto Morales et al have shown that success in building enforcement capacity in the Mexican Professional Civil Service reform has relied on  on having a robust body of career civil servants.  Even if reforms that implemented a national career service in Mexico have been relatively recent (as Benton indicates in her 2002 study), the Mexican foreign civil service has been trained for much longer.

Diplomacy requires expertise, training and experience. Mexican foreign affairs career officials have been trained for decades at the Instituto Matias Romero. The IMR is Mexico’s diplomatic academy, and offers training for regular civilians to help them become part of the professionalized Mexican foreign civil service. These career diplomats learn how to engage and participate in the global arena through courses, exams and many years of appointments and engagement with the international community. If Videgaray had wanted to learn, he could have joined the ranks of foreign civil service individuals and career diplomats, from the bottom up, not arrive to one of the most important cabinet positions saying “I am absolutely clueless about the job you’re doing and the tasks I am supposed to be fulfilling but hey I am buddies with the PEOTUS’ son-in-law“.  If Peña Nieto and his government had any credibility left (his approval ratings were reportedly in the low 20%,  lower than former presidents Calderón and Fox, and probably the lowest for any Mexican president in history), this appointment helped seal the deal and will sink his approval rate lower if that is even possible.

And then we have the incoming Trump administration breaking precedent and refusing to give politically-appointed ambassadors extensions beyond inauguration day.  Despite not being politically-appointed, career diplomat and foreign policy expert jobs are also likely to be nixed.  It’s been reported already that many are likely to leave their jobs in an exodus. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were the case too in the Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Affairs. Who would want to work for someone who has no clue about the monumental challenges facing the ministry he is heading now?

Loss of well-trained and expert staff in foreign ministries should worry country leaders. Apparently,  neither Trump, nor May nor Peña Nieto do not even think about this for a second. In a post-truth world, we are witnessing an era of open contempt for expertise, knowledge and experience.

Scary thought during turbulent times.

UPDATE – I was just alerted by Sarah Croco to a project by Thomas Flores, Gabriella Lloyd and Irfan Nooruddin on the political economy of technocratic expertise. Mexican high-level cabinet members had traditionally been PhD holders educated in foreign universities, and thus Mexico could be a good case study for this project.