President George W. Bush was the picture of confidence as he sat in the Roosevelt Room talking to a small group of reporters about the upcoming visit of Mexican President Vicente Fox. Sipping on a Diet Coke and loudly crunching ice on this September day in 2001, Bush proclaimed the start of a new era in U.S. relations with its neighbor to the south. “The United States has no more important relationship in the world than the one we have with Mexico,” he declared firmly. Seven days later, terrorists struck in New York City and Washington, and that relationship suddenly didn’t seem quite as important as the alliances with countries ready to send troops to support American aims. U.S.-Mexico was shoved unceremoniously into the background. And Fox, who did not back the U.S. at the United Nations when Bush wanted to go to war with Iraq, found he could no longer get his phone calls returned by the White House.
It was a dramatic reminder that events—more than even presidents—set agendas. And it is a lesson with some relevance to President Obama, who traveled to Mexico last week and repeated some of the now-expected promises to elevate U.S.-Mexican relations in the foreign policy hierarchy. No one doubts the president’s sincerity. He understands the growing importance of trade with Mexico and with the Central American countries, whose leaders he met with last week in Costa Rica. In fact, a main purpose of the trip was to shift attention from the issues of drug cartels, crime, and violence that dominated earlier hemispheric summits. That repositioning came even amid indications that newly elected Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is reconsidering some security cooperation with the United States.