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A Conversation with the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Christopher Landau

By Gianluca Corinaldesi and Rohini Thakkar

Ambassador Landau with Duke RDP

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Christopher Landau joined the Director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS) and retired U.S. Ambassador, Patrick Duddy, and the Director of the Duke Center for International and Global Studies (DUCIGS), Giovanni Zanalda, in a conversation about diplomacy and the state of the U.S./Mexico relationship.

The son of a career foreign service officer who served as a U.S. ambassador, Christopher Landau spent his pre-college years throughout Spain, Paraguay, Chile, Venezuela.

When, after 20 years practicing law in D.C., he was offered a judgeship by the U.S. administration in 2019, he said “I’d rather be Ambassador to Mexico.”

“What makes the U.S. relationship with Mexico so unique,” he explained, “is that with a lot of countries in the world the relationship is focused maybe on one overriding issue or maybe a couple.” “The relationship with Mexico is unique in just the incredibly broad spectrum that it covers.”

Ambassador Landau also candidly admitted that coming from the footsteps of a career foreign service officer, he always had “dimmed views” of political appointees. But now, as a politically appointed ambassador, he appreciates the advantages. “The bureaucracy nowadays puts a big premium on not taking risks, not sticking your head up. I can take risks and do more unconventional things,” he concluded.

The webinar is the second event of the new series “A Conversation with the Ambassador,” part of DUCIGS/Rethinking Diplomacy program (RDP).  The first installment was a conversation with Mexican Ambassador to the U.S., Martha Bárcena Coqui. The RDP is supported by a grant from the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation Endowment Fund.  This event was organized in partnership with the Duke Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS), and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy (AGS.)  

Over the course of the webinar, Ambassador Landau touched upon the issues of Migration, Trade, and Security, among others.

Watch the full conversation: 

Here are some excerpts from the webinar.


Ambassador Christopher Landau

“Ambassador’s job is sufficiently flexible that you can, depending on the country, obviously, focus on certain issues that fit more into your particular background.”

“I know lots of people in the administration in Washington, which obviously my father did not as a career diplomat. Those relationships are very helpful. As a political appointee, there’s a sense that you’re on the team.”

“I feel like I have a certain sense of freedom….A career person would feel probably somewhat constrained” ..“ the bureaucracy, nowadays, puts a big premium on not taking risks and not sticking your head up and I think as a political ambassador, I don’t necessarily have those same constraints, I can actually take risks.”


Ambassador Christopher Landau

“It’s been a big topic for a long time it was getting much better in the last 10 years as Mexico’s own economic situation improved. The numbers had been declining since about 2009 – 2010. They have zoomed back up this year with the economic crisis unleashed by COVID here. And so, I’m quite concerned with the economic situation in Mexico and with the resulting pressures on migration.”

“In the last couple of years, we started to see a very new migratory phenomenon, which is people from third countries transiting through Mexico to go to the United States in very large numbers. …For Mexico, it has met some reevaluation of the migratory phenomenon where traditionally, they’ve been very pro migrant, because they’ve been thinking of their own paisanos who come to the states, but now all of a sudden when people are springing up from all over the world and entering Mexico illegally, there’s a kind of a profound rethinking, afoot here in Mexico about this phenomenon. So, it is fair to say that this issue has loomed very large in our bilateral relationship and certainly during the pandemic, especially because that added a whole new public health dimension to the situation.”

“We’ve reached an agreement with the Mexicans that they will enforce their own migration laws and help persuade these very large numbers of people.  At the end of the day, we’ve got to work together to try to create systems for Mexicans to come work in the United States legally, in so far as there are jobs that otherwise would go unfilled. … Illegal migration, the migrants have a very tough time, a very dangerous journey through Mexico and then they are subject to exploitation in the United States, so I’d certainly like to see a return to the Bracero Program of the 50s and early 60s.”

Ambassador Patrick Duddy

“I’ve studied the Bracero program myself in the past, that seemed to offer a useful model.”


Ambassador Christopher Landau

“Both NAFTA and now the USMCA created a useful framework that have allowed trade to flourish.”

“There were some structural problems with NAFTA and it’s certainly gotten outdated over 25 years… It is a good thing to take another look at these kinds of treaties and certainly NAFTA did not include labor protections… Mexico has now in its own domestic law as well as in its treaty obligation, agreed to certain labor reforms that are going to hopefully level the playing field, in terms of real collective bargaining and labor rights and allowing union activity to flourish here. …These agreements are good signal that the US and Mexico are on the same team and Canada.”

“There are always going to be trade frictions… NAFTA and now the USMCA create a framework, at least to resolve investment disputes which should make investment flow in both directions.”

“…both the President of Mexico, López Obrador and our President Trump were kind of open skeptics of NAFTA, that they both came around and ultimately, they tightened it up and they fixed it quite a bit. But at the end of the day, they didn’t jettison it and that was a real prospect. And it’s a testament to the strength of this economic relationship that’s been created.”


Ambassador Christopher Landau

“Both migration and security are issues where we really share the challenges with Mexico and that neither side of the border can solve the problem by itself. So that the answer to migration has to be on the US side, just as much as the Mexican side. That’s equally true for security.”

…these are very sophisticated cartels and they control not an unsubstantial part of Mexico as a practical matter. By the same token, what is the source of their power? It’s the money and the arms that they’re getting from our country. And so, it’s one of these challenges that really is a two-way street. Mexico can’t solve it all alone. And, that’s also something that we have to work on our side of the border, reducing demand for these drugs, reducing the flow of firearms to Mexico.”


Ambassador Christopher Landau

“I think as Mexico has really opened up politically over the last 20 years, there have been a lot of changes in that and particularly with President López Obrador coming into office, a year and a half ago, a lot of traditional assumptions about Mexico and its foreign policy, no longer hold true and they’re no longer knee jerk against the US and international fora by any means. To the contrary, it’s fair to say that President López Obrador puts a very high value on a good relationship with the United States for a number of domestic, political and international reasons. So, Mexican foreign policy is certainly quite independent of the United States.”

Read the story on Duke Today