The U.S. scores a diplomatic own-goal

No one today would challenge the assertion that the United States is currently facing a plethora of key foreign policy challenges in geostrategic hotspots around the world, cluttering the radar screen of both the White House and Congress. However, many would be hard-pressed to admit or agree that despite these urgent issues, whether in the Middle East or the Korean Peninsula, no country in the world has more of an impact on the day-to-day prosperity, wellbeing and security of the U.S. and of Americans than Mexico.

Statistics may sometimes be held up there with damned lies, but that doesn't mean that they're irrelevant, despite the rhetoric and bombast of some candidates on the campaign trail in the U.S., seemingly impervious to hard data.

Look at our trade: close to $1.4 billion dollars of goods daily cross into Mexico and the U.S. Six million American jobs directly depend on trade with its southern neighbor and twenty-six states in the U.S. have Mexico as their number one or number two trading partner. Mexico buys more U.S. exports than the combined purchases of Japan and China; of the 4 BRIC's; of all of Latin America and the Caribbean; or of the UK, France, Italy and The Netherlands. On any given day 1 million people legally go back and forth through our ports of entry.

And we truly have become interconnected societies, as millions of Mexicans and close to 1.5 million Americans, the largest expat community living abroad, call the U.S. and Mexico home. Moreover, post 9-11 security has compelled our two nations to deepen and widen security and intelligence cooperation, whether it's to confront transnational criminal organizations operating on both sides of our common border or ensuring that it's not used by international terrorist organizations seeking to undermine our security. The promise and potential of Mexico's energy reform for North American energy efficiency, sustainability and security, the profound changes in migration patterns from Mexico to the U.S., our integrated supply chains and production platforms (particularly in the automotive and aerospace sectors), and our competitive edge that can propel, as TPP partners, further economic growth in our region, could all trigger a rising tide in Mexico that lifts boats on both sides of the Rio Grande.

This is why for a vast majority of Mexicans who care about this critically important relationship, a U.S. Embassy in Mexico City now without an Ambassador for five months and counting, is bewildering if not galling. And when Vice President Biden goes down to Mexico at the end of the month for the High Level Economic Dialogue meeting with government officials and private sector representatives, he may get an earful.

As a U.S. hand in Mexico's career foreign service, I have known and worked alongside Roberta Jacobson -nominated by President Obama eight months ago to become Washington's next Ambassador in Mexico- for the better part of two decades. And as a former Mexican Ambassador to the U.S., and someone who has had the opportunity and privilege of interacting with the last six U.S. Ambassadors to Mexico in a row, I have witnessed what it takes to head the U.S. mission in Mexico. Jacobson's ratification should have been a shoo-in. Her qualifications, experience, first-hand knowledge, and interaction with Mexico are unquestionable, which in many ways explains the all-around support and praise her nomination garnered in Mexico, both in governmental and business circles as well as among analysts, academia and civil society.

Yet her nomination has languished on Capitol Hill, first in the Foreign Relations Committee, which finally voted to approve it this past November, and now on the Senate floor. The Senate's failure to confirm Jacobson is not only damaging U.S. interests in Mexico; it is being perceived by Mexican opinion makers and government officials alike as a sign of how little attention is bestowed in Washington upon the bilateral relationship with Mexico.

And it doesn't matter if the Gordian knot is in Congress; regardless of whether they are friends or foes of a strong and forward-looking, strategically driven bilateral agenda with the U.S. or are experts or laymen in how Washington works, many Mexicans growingly equate a vacant Embassy with neglect and a lack of interest and priority in the way Washington deals with its partner.

Not surprisingly, many in Mexico therefore postulate that it's not in its national interest today -and that there's certainly no pressing imperative- to invest significant political and diplomatic capital in the relationship with the U.S. at this time; that all that is needed, given the "lack of interest" in ensuring an Ambassador is in place, is to keep the relationship on automatic pilot. And this is troubling at a moment in time when this uniquely complex and multilayered relationship simultaneously experiences bold new opportunities and persistent challenges, not least amongst the latter the perilous signs of nativist populism tainted with anti-Mexicanism in the U.S. campaign trail.

Thirty years ago, Alan Riding, one in a line of outstanding foreign correspondents that have covered Mexico for the U.S. press over the years, wrote a seminal book -"Distant Neighbors"- on the relationship between Mexico and the United States. The title itself points to the striking changes that have occurred in this relationship since then.

Thanks to NAFTA and to a growing convergence across myriad issues -whether it is on security, trade, energy, climate change, common water resources, global health issues or a rules-based 21st Century international system- that today make up the bilateral agenda between both nations, this is no longer a relationship between two distant neighbors. Though evidently never devoid of tough issues and the occasional disagreement, it has now truly become a strategic partnership.

Those of us who believe that our two countries will succeed or fail together need to ensure that this sea-change that has occurred in the relationship continues to deliver the goods for our two peoples.

The U.S. Senate needs to send an unequivocal message that it will support the efforts of President Obama and his three predecessors to dramatically improve ties with Mexico. I believe that having Roberta Jacobson as the next U.S. Ambassador will enable us to continue to build upon a holistic and strategic relationship with Mexico. Octavio Paz, a Mexican Nobel laureate, once wrote that Mexico and the U.S. had a hard time getting along because "Mexicans didn't know how to speak up and Americans didn't know how to listen".

Today Mexicans are indeed speaking up: we want a U.S. ambassador confirmed without further delay. And Mexicans will be watching to see if Washington -and the Senate- listen.