Mexico is currently undergoing a period of government transition: on December 1, the PRI returned to power for the first time in twelve years. In its wake, the outgoing government left a country with a sound macroeconomic environment and an expected growth rate of 3.8 percent for 2012. Despite this and other successes, however, the prior administration underperformed in one crucial aspect: foreign policy. Former Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Patricia Espinosa, appeared before the Mexican Congress last September. Her presentation reflected the tone of Mexico’s past decade of foreign policy: passive, dormant and reactive. Fortunately, Mexico’s new administration has the opportunity to engage in a more aggressive policy that accelerates economic growth by exploiting its potential and competitiveness.

During her appearance, Secretary Espinosa was questioned about Mexico’s subordinate role to the U.S. and the country’s overall lack of leadership over the past six years. Espinosa’s answers echoed her policies: she provided an excuse about the importance of the U.S.-Mexico relationship. Conveniently avoiding other important themes, such as the lack of Latin-American leadership, she focused on the importance of the G20 summit held in Mexico. In reality, the G20 summit did not provide Mexico with a more preponderant role on the international agenda. The main objectives of the summit were to outline a financial plan for Europe and to fight poverty in less developed countries—not including Mexico. There was no substantial advance in Mexico’s role as a regional leader or in its status as a player on the international agenda.

In order to properly understand this past term’s foreign policy, it is best to compare two administrations. In the 1970s, under President Luis Echeverria, Mexico engaged in “active foreign policy.” In this stage of bipolarity during the Cold War, Mexico held a preeminent regional role as a link between (mainly Latin American) Third World countries and the United States. Furthermore, Echeverria’s government sponsored critical agreements such as the “Charter of the Rights and Economic Duties of the States” and acted as a mediator with communist countries. In contrast, today, Mexico is far from being a regional leader. Foreign policy has been focused on bilateral cooperation with the United States–especially regarding organized crime–to no avail. While the North is attempting to highlight new items on the agenda, such as immigration and trade, the South is establishing a new order.

Brazil is now the regional leader and spokesperson for Latin America: one of the BRIC countries, it will host the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. While Secretary Espinosa may argue that hosting an international summit (such as the G20 or the COP 16) is as important as hosting the Olympics or the World Cup, this is simply not the case. A stronger strategy is necessary when competing against Brazil, a champion of public relations and diplomacy.

Today, there is a new opportunity. During the presidential campaign process, newly-inaugurated President Enrique Pena Nieto did not profoundly address foreign policy; however, there is a good opportunity to return Mexico into the international concert. The new administration must not follow the lead of the last Foreign Affairs Ministry; the new focus should be to look inside Mexico and toward its neighbors to the south. Active foreign policy must make a comeback. Not only will this benefit the country’s international relations – it will become an important factor in driving economic growth.

In order to do so, Mexico must accept that it is not a priority on the U.S. agenda.  It must capitalize on the fact that it has the second-largest number of trade agreements in the world (44). Trade agreements are directly related with producing better goods and products, while increasing internal competitiveness, efficiency and job quality. Establishing trade agreements is also one of the first steps in attracting foreign direct investment.

A new focus based on a more aggressive foreign policy toward Mexico’s diverse trading partners would allow a reduction in trade dependence on the U.S. market. This would also lead to greater access to better products and services at a lower cost. Ultimately, these trade agreements would improve Mexico’s internal growth. In addition, Mexico should continue fostering deeper Latin American connections. It can do this by leading the ongoing negotiations of the Pacific Alliance with Colombia, Chile and Peru–allowing for a definite comeback in the region.

Similarly, related to Mexico’s economic competitiveness is the international perception that it is a country immersed in a drug war. To tackle this, the country needs to implement policies aggressively promoting its leadership in the automotive and aerospace industries. This would result in greater foreign direct investment (which has decreased from $25.1 billion in 2001 to $13 billion in 2012) and consequentially position Mexico as a competitive investment destination.

It is true that creating an active foreign policy is a challenging proposition. Fortunately, the new administration has an incredible opportunity to take on this task. It is important to remember that Mexico’s economy produces over 1.6 trillion dollars each year – ranking as the twelfth-largest economy in the world, and as the sixteenth-largest exporter (larger than Brazil, at twenty-third). These arguments reveal the imperative nature of making active foreign policy, as a means of economic development, a central part of the incoming administration’s agenda.