By CONOR FINNEGAN, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — Secretary of State Antony Blinken is making his first “trip” as the top U.S. diplomat, the State Department said, although he’s not really going anywhere.
With the Biden administration’s coronavirus travel restrictions still in place, Blinken will hold meetings and attend cultural events with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts on Friday via video teleconference from Washington.
But the agency, keen to show that the new administration is actively working with U.S. allies, is launching a series of “virtual” trips with Blinken, where he will meet foreign leaders and local U.S. embassy staff, “visit” different cities and cultural sites, announce new policies or agreements and hold press conferences, just as he would on a real trip.
“We have designed this trip to resemble as close as we can a physical trip and we’re doing the best we can to fulfill our diplomatic mission and to further our relationships with our close North American partners, given the reality in which we currently live,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Thursday.
President Joe Biden held virtual meetings with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday in a similar fashion, with the White House calling it his first “bilateral meetings” even as the two sides communicated through video teleconferencing.
While virtual meetings have become the norm, diplomacy often works best when there are in-person discussions.
“There is far more difficulty in creating connections, establishing relationships and feeling empathy — and, therefore, greater difficulty in achieving diplomatic goals,” according to Nicholas Hawton and Shahrokh Shakerian, diplomatic advisers for the International Committee of the Red Cross. “The ‘coffee corridor connection’ is lost. The discussions and connections made in the informal spaces around traditional diplomatic locations simply cannot be replicated.”
That presents a challenge particularly for U.S.-Mexican relations, with tensions over trade, energy, migration and countering narcotrafficking.
The Biden administration has startled to dismantle former President Donald Trump’s harsh immigration policies, including forcing asylum seekers to remain in Mexico, which had created tensions with left-wing populist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known by his initials as AMLO.
But there are still issues with AMLO’s energy policy, which U.S. critics said undermines the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement free trade agreement — the modernized North American Free Trade Agreement. A bill before Mexico’s congress would give the state-owned utility priority in feeding the national grid, marginalizing the renewable energy sector. That earned a warning from the Trump administration last month that Mexico must “live up to its USMCA obligations” or risk hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid, according to a letter from the Secretaries of State, Energy and Commerce obtained by ABC News.
It’s unclear if the Biden administration shares those concerns. Acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Julie Chung said the issue will be discussed “in the medium term and the long term because there are many aspects that we’re hearing from the private sector about their concerns — but this is where we encourage Mexico to listen to the stakeholders, to listen to the private sector companies and really provide that culture, the atmosphere of free investment and transparency so that companies will continue to invest in Mexico.”
Countering narcotraffickers and enhancing security will also be a top issue, especially after Monday’s arrest of Emma Coronel Aispuro, the wife of the notorious drug cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Last month, Mexican authorities dropped charges against former defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos, who had been arrested and charged with drug trafficking by the U.S. Despite an alleged promise to prosecute him at home, Cienfuegos was released, and Mexico’s congress passed a law to limit foreign law enforcement operating in the country and strip their diplomatic immunity.
“We continue to have a very strong level of cooperation across all levels between the United States and Mexico,” Chung told ABC News. “We’re going to make sure we address those law enforcement issues together, and we’re committed more than ever to utilizing every tool to address that.”
During his “visit,” Blinken will meet with Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard and Economy Secretary Tatiana Clouthier to discuss trade, migration, security and other issues.
He’ll also see those migration issues “up close” by taking a virtual “tour” of Paso Del Norte, the port of entry between Ciudad Juarez in Mexico and El Paso, Texas, in the U.S.
While relations with Canada suffered under former President Donald Trump, who hit Canada with “national security tariffs,” they seem to have easily rebounded under Biden. Trudeau praised their partnership on Tuesday, saying, “U.S. leadership has been sorely missed over the past years,” in particular on climate change.
Blinken will meet again with Trudeau on Friday, along with his counterpart Foreign Minister Marc Garneau and other cabinet ministers. He’ll also meet students and local leaders to discuss climate change and the Arctic, and see an Inuit cultural performance.
Climate change has emerged as a key issue between the two governments, with special envoy for climate change John Kerry holding his first high-level summit on Wednesday with Canada to commit to “ambitious” action and deepen both countries’ commitments to reduce carbon emissions more quickly.
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