Washington Post: US Retreats From UN Leadership

Migration is part of human history and human nature, sometimes the only means of surviving war, natural disaster or economic despair. In 2016, UN member states committed to negotiating the Global Compact on Migration. The United States, under the Trump administration, announced plans to withdraw from negotiations. The goal of the compact, not legally binding, is agreement on a “set of general principles and commitments for countries to deal with international migration,” explains Ernesto Zedillo, former president of Mexico and professor of international economics and politics at Yale University. UN leaders understand the contentiousness of migration and “infused the process with substantial and balanced realism.” Research and US experience have long shown that migration is a source of divisions and economic prosperity, and UN reports caution nations to be mindful of the separate challenges for sending and receiving nations. Nations with shared borders, including the United States and Mexico, that fail to cooperate on migration can anticipate unnecessary costs. “The global compact should constitute an agenda to strengthen the rule of law, bring the challenges that migration creates under control and respond effectively and beneficially to the realities of labor markets,” Zedillo concludes. “Precisely to better protect their own citizens, states must act together and cooperatively.” – YaleGlobal

Washington Post: US Retreats From UN Leadership

By withdrawing from UN negotiations on a global compact for migration, the US won’t have a say on this source of national divisions and prosperity
Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León
Tuesday, March 27, 2018


When U.S. President Donald Trump visited the border between our two countries early this month to inspect prototypes for his infamous wall, everyone took notice. Yet, given the avalanche of attacks on international institutions from day one of the Trump administration, it is not surprising that it went relatively unnoticed when Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, announced rather insolently that her country would abandon talks on the Global Compact on Migration in December.

This is a great pity because the very principles that compact would establish — emphasizing the rule of law and orderly migration — are precisely in the self-interest of the U.S.

All U.N. member states — the U.S. included — committed in September of 2016 to negotiate the compact with plans to approve it by the end of this year. This objective did not look overly ambitious. On the one hand, the compact is not legally binding, which should have made governments more accommodating. On the other hand, the negotiation was intended simply to agree on a set of general principles and commitments for countries to deal with international migration.

Both António Guterres, the Secretary General of the United Nations, and his predecessor, Ban Ki-moon, have been mindful of the complexity and contentiousness of the topic, and the U.N. leadership has all along infused the process with substantial and balanced realism. This is evidenced in U.N. documents that, along with the 2016 declaration, serve as key references for the ongoing negotiations.


One of these is a report prepared by the late Peter Sutherland, an admired advocate of multilateral international cooperation, reflecting on his decade of work as the U.N.’s special representative for international migration. The Sutherland report clearly admits that nations have no obligation to open their borders to all migrants. While the benefits of migration are tangible, he wrote, they do take time to materialize. But their associated costs can appear immediately, for individuals and even entire social groups. This is a situation that must be acknowledged and addressed with practical solutions.

The report also makes clear that although orderly migration depends on providing expanded pathways for legal entry, these must be subject to labor market considerations. Sutherland wasn’t shy to recommend circular, back-and-forth migration as an effective way to manage the movement of people between poorer countries and richer ones.

Another report, by Guterres himself, acknowledges at the outset that migration can be a source of division within and between states and societies, even though it is also an engine of economic growth, innovation and sustainable development. He argues that states and their citizens have legitimate reasons to demand both secure borders and the capacity to determine who enters and stays in their territory.

The report also warns that, since states can hold divergent perspectives on the benefits and costs of migration, governments must be mindful of each other’s specific priorities and challenges. Guterres therefore advises against ignoring citizens’ perceptions and concerns of migration policy.

One of the most serious concerns about irregular immigration into the U.S. is that of people from my own country, Mexico.

Two years ago, a group of individuals (of which I was a member) from both the U.S. and Mexico convened by Washington-based think tank the Center for Global Development published a report that contained a concrete proposal for how joint management of migration could maximize benefits for both states. Our suggested bilateral worker agreement was intended to curtail unlawful cross-border mobility, while also preserving priority for American workers for jobs in the U.S. and enhancing common security on both sides of our border.


But obviously, given the current political conditions in the U.S., our proposal is for the time being chimerical. Shared responsibility on this, and possibly on many other issues that are important for both countries, looks unachievable for now. This is a shame, because there are significant costs for both countries without an agreement, certainly for the U.S., which will continue to spend enormous resources on alternatives that will never deliver the expected results.

Unfortunately, when Haley announced the end of U.S. participation in the global compact on migration, she signaled the total rejection of a simple and sound principle. By declaring that America’s “decisions on immigration policies must always be made by Americans and Americans alone,” the U.S. government decided to abandon an agreement that’s in the best interests of Americans. Adopting such a posture is regrettable not only for the damage done to the multilateral system but also because it closes the door on initiatives that would address, cooperatively and more effectively, the problems we face in immigration policy today.

This undoubtedly will continue to be the case if the U.S. government decides to go ahead with the idea of building another wall on the American side of the border — fully, I might add, at American taxpayers’ expense. Obviously, under no circumstances will we Mexicans contribute to the materialization of such an extravagant, useless and offensive white elephant.

The global compact should constitute an agenda to strengthen the rule of law, bring the challenges that migration creates under control and respond effectively and beneficially to the realities of labor markets. .


Ernesto Zedillo, a professor in the field of international economics and politics at Yale University and member of The Elders, was president of Mexico from 1994 to 2000. He is also a member of the Berggruen Institute‘s 21st Century Council.

The essay was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and the Washington Post.

Read the report “Shared Border, Shared Future: A Blueprint to Regulate US-Mexico Labor Mobility.” The report was prepared by a working group for the Center for Global Development, co-chaired by Carlos Gutierrez and Ernesto Zedillow with Michael A. Clemens as lead author. The report proposes joint management of migration by Mexico and the United States and maximization of benefits and security for both nations.

© 1996-2018 The Washington Post