Public Diplomacy: A “European” Solution to Mexico’s Image Problem

A Long-Term “European” Solution to the Image Issue of Mexico in the United States

by Selene Barceló M.

The following article proposes a European model of Public Diplomacy to transform the negative image of Mexico and Mexicans in the United States. Barceló, a member of the Mexican Foreign Service, argues the answer to Mexico’s image problem is increasing student exchange programs between the U.S. and its southern neighbor. 



The U.S. presidential election of 2016 has brought into the spotlight an issue that foreign policy professionals have known about for a long time. The unfavorable image of Mexico and Mexicans in the eyes of U.S. citizens. The construction of a wall, the association of being Mexican with criminality, and other similar campaign positions voiced during the primaries (BBC 2015) forced the negative image of Mexico and Mexican immigration to the forefront of an election cycle that concluded with the victory of the Republican candidate. Hence, there is an immediate need for the Mexican government to counterbalance such arguments.

An obvious resource at Mexico’s disposal is its diplomats. With the most extensive consular network in the world, consisting of 50 consulates, the largest any single country has in another, Mexico is represented in all major metropolitan areas of the United States. Nevertheless, the representatives of the Mexican government are limited in their abilities to respond to the challenge posed by the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States.  Article 55, of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (1963) and article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961), state that the Consuls and Diplomats: “… also have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of the State”.

Given this limitation on Mexico’s actions, an effective long-term response to this challenge is a one-way student mobility program between the U.S. and Mexico.  This policy would go a long way toward gradually improving the attitudes of U.S. citizens toward Mexico and thus Mexico’s image in the United States.



The Mexican government, through its network of consulates in the U.S., has traditionally focused on offering consular services to the Mexican diaspora as established in the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The parallel empowerment of the U.S.-based diaspora has recently become part of the official efforts of the Mexican government (Barceló 2005). Successive Mexican governments assisted in the establishment of community groups through programs such as Comunidades Mexicanas en el Exterior in the 90s and the Institute of Mexicans Abroad since early 2000’s (Délano 2011). These groups have advocated for the interest of their members in the U.S. and Mexico (González and Ayón 2016). Nevertheless, this approach has proven to be insufficient to improve the U.S. image of Mexicans and shaping U.S. attitudes towards Mexico.

Vianovo and GSD&M conducted a national poll to examine attitudes of U.S. citizens towards Mexico. The results, published in June 2016, show that 45% had an unfavorable opinion about Mexico and only 22% had a favorable opinion. These percentages closely match with the Vianovo and GSD&M first national poll results on the same question, conducted in 2012. The stability of U.S. opinions about Mexico over these four years suggest strongly that pre-existing beliefs are the main cause of the lousy image U.S. citizens have of Mexico and Mexicans.

The current Undersecretary for North America at the Mexican Foreign Ministry and former Ambassador to the U.S., Carlos Sada, has stressed the need to empower the Mexican and Mexican American community as a key to restoring a good image of Mexicans among the U. S. populace (El Universal 2016). With this matter in mind, the Foreign Ministry actively promotes a strategy based on Mexican advocacy groups. Owing to the currently unfavorable image of Mexico in the United States, identified through focus group research funded by the Mexican government, the strategy calls for the creation of advocacy groups composed of Mexicans, Mexican-Americans and Americans (academics, businessman, community leaders, “dreamers”, etc.) who either personally represent the advances of the Mexican and Mexican-American communities or are otherwise willing to participate in a broad-based effort to expose U.S. citizens to a different image of Mexico.

In other words, the empowerment of the Mexican diaspora and its allies -within the Anglo population- may have the capacity to counterbalance the unfavorable attitudes toward Mexico espoused by the new Trump administration.  By presenting a more positive image of Mexico and Mexicans, these actors can help change pre-existing U.S. attitudes.

Even if these are successful, they are unlikely to be sufficient to achieve the desired objective. As the former Undersecretary for North America, Paulo Carreño King, points out in his El Universal interview, the negative image of Mexico held by much of the U.S. populace was not created in a year or two. It was created gradually over a very long period of time, and thus is going to take a long time and require a wide array of strategies to improve. It will require a sustained multifaceted approach that exploits all of the arrows in Mexico’s quiver.


How can educational experiences change the Mexican image in the U.S.?

Another essential aspect of Mexico’s long-term efforts to enhance its image in the U.S. is to encourage binational social interactions which have a proven ability to improve the level of understanding between peoples of different nationalities and cultures.

The eminent sociologist Karl Deutch demonstrated that the international mobility of people (among other types of ‘social communication’) creates interaction among peoples of different nationalities, which has the capacity to build a foundation for trust and understanding, and ultimately a sense of community.  Students studying for an extended period (at least one semester) in a foreign country commonly develop new friendships, an appreciation and understanding of the local culture and a generally improved attitude toward the host country.

Social psychology theory and research support a similar notion, as the distinguished Professor Samuel Gaertner argues: “…interaction between groups can not only reduce intergroup bias, but actually cause group members to recategorize themselves as a single group (“we”) rather than categorizing themselves as two separate groups (“us “and “them”)” (Gaertner et al., 1993 as cited in Mitchell 2012). This we-feeling can lead to a natural process of integration similar to that of the European Union and their sense of a common European identity (Fligstein, 2008).

Even though Mexico does not share the European aim of creating a shared regional identity — a North American identity — its goal of creating positive attitudes about itself and its people can benefit from a similar exchange strategy. How then did Europe use educational exchange to build a common sense of European identity?

Explicitly accepting the international integration theory proposed by Karl Deutch, European Community leaders launched the world’s largest student exchange program in 1987: ERASMUS, the European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students (ECC 1987). The original objectives of the ERASMUS program were:

“(i) to achieve a significant increase in the number of students from universities as defined in Article 1 (2) spending an integrated period of study in another Member State…;

(ii) to promote broad and intensive cooperation between universities in all Member States;

(iii) to harness the full intellectual potential of the universities in the Community by means of increased mobility of teaching staff, thereby improving the quality of the education and training provided by the universities with a view to securing the competitiveness of the Community in the world market;

(iv) to strengthen the interaction between citizens in different Member States with a view to consolidating the concept of a People’s Europe;

(v) to ensure the development of a pool of graduates with direct experience of intra-Community cooperation, thereby creating the basis upon which intensified cooperation in the economic and social sectors can develop at Community level” (ECC 1987).

A program that started modestly with 3,244 students in the 1987/88 academic year grew 800% by 203/14, to over 270,000 ERASMUS students with a budget of over 2 billion euros.  More than 3.3 million students have participated in the program  (European Commission 2015).


ERASMUS, a successful program

The program is very popular among students in European universities and is considered a success in terms of improving the attitudes of its participants toward the European Union. For the purposes of this essay, the success of objective (iv) is of particular interest. Various studies on the attitudes toward the European Union (EU) and European integration of ERASMUS program participants versus non-participants prove the success of the program (Wilson, 2011; Sigalas 2010; Mitchell 2012).

The studies demonstrate that ERASMUS participants show significant positive changes in attitudes toward the EU and European integration in relation to non-participants. Mitchell’s study is particularly revealing.  It surveyed over 2,000 students from 25 EU countries and found out that “ERASMUS students are more likely to identify as European and to feel attached and favorable to the EU than are non-mobile students”.

In a similar but significantly larger study, Brandenburg et al. (2016), examined the effects of ERASMUS.  The sample for the study was comprised of 71,368 individual responses to five online surveys launched in 2013. They found that: “Across all regions, as well as in every individual region, the vast majority felt that mobility improved their European attitude. ERASMUS students and alumni declared that they relate to Europe significantly more often than non-mobiles.

These and other empirical studies support the theory that social interactions through the ERASMUS program improved attitudes of participants toward the concept of Europe. This empirical evidence stresses the point that a student exchange program has successfully improved the attitudes of its participants toward a political entity – in this case the European Union.


An “ERASMUS” for American students

In the case of Mexico and the chronic image problem that it faces in the United States, a university student exchange program similar to ERASMUS should contribute to the creation of positive participant attitudes towards Mexico. Ideally this would be a two-way program, but the urgency of the need counsels for the immediate creation of a one-way program. Such a one-way program would consist of U.S. students studying a semester in a Mexican university with the financial support of the Mexican government or other sponsors. Such program will lead to new friendships and an appreciation and understanding of Mexico, its culture and its people. And as shown above, these social interactions in an international context, should generate positive attitudes toward Mexico and in the long-term create a critical mass of future leaders that can positively influence public opinion in the U.S.

There currently is a variety of student exchange programs between the two nations. Some are individual efforts between universities while others take place under the auspices of the “Bilateral Forum in Higher Education, Innovation and Research” (FOBESII) signed in 2013 between the Mexican and U.S. governments. This program is broad in scope and aims at expanding “opportunities for educational exchanges, scientific research partnerships and cross-border innovation” (DOS 2015). In its current form, FOBESII’s achievements in the area of educational exchange have been limited — mostly short-stay student exchanges and internship opportunities exploited by Mexicans more than U.S. citizens (U.S. Embassy, 2016). The student exchanges in this program are financed by private entities, the Mexican and U.S. governments.

Individual exchange efforts include the University of California system whose study abroad programs in Mexico are mainly with the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). It is a two-way program in which U.S. students can study one semester or more in the UNAM and UNAM students study at a University of California campus.  Currently, more Mexican students use the program despite the availability of scholarships for U.S. students.  Other public universities such as the University of Texas system and private universities like the University of Southern California operate similar programs with a variety of Mexican universities.

Beyond student exchange, the Mexico-United States Exchange Visitor Program for Teachers creates an opportunity for Mexico to host U.S. professionals for 1 to 3 years. Yet currently the program consists of about 20 visiting Mexican teachers each academic year in California. No Mexican schools benefit from hosting a U.S. teacher, mainly for financial reasons. Mexican schools cannot afford to pay the equivalent of U.S. teachers’ salaries, one of the conditions of the program which has been in place for about 25 years.

All of these efforts, and other similar ones, are important, but the level of financing and the poor image of Mexico results in their becoming virtual one-way exchanges in which Mexicans travel to the United States but only a few U.S. students and teachers travel to Mexico.  There are simply an insufficient number of U.S. students and professionals participating.

A Mexico – U.S. one-way undergraduate student exchange program would be designed to overcome this shortcoming in current exchange efforts.  It should have similar objectives to that of the European Union ERASMUS program including: (a) U.S.–Mexico cooperation in education and training; (b) The sustainable development of collaboration in the field of higher education; and (c) The promotion of common values and understanding.  And of course, the last objective is the most important given the current context Mexico-U.S. relations and the urgent need to improve Mexico’s image in the U.S.

The program would be open to any undergraduate enrolled in a U.S. university. To overcome the financing challenge and the evident lack of interest and enthusiasm among U.S. students to study abroad in Mexico, the ability to provide a full scholarship for participants will be essential. Given the fiscal limitations of the Mexican government, funding will be provided in conjunction with philanthropic partners such as the Carlos Slim Foundation or other similar organizations. This scholarship should be coupled with an intense promotional campaign in the United States, which together promise to entice a significant number of U.S. students to participate.

This program can be oriented toward the elite/privileged universities of the United States where the future leaders of the public institutions and private corporations are formed. It also needs to focus on States where the economy benefits greatly from their bilateral relationship with Mexico, the image of Mexico is largely unfavorable, such as Texas, Ohio, Michigan and North Carolina, just to mention a few. This focused approach will make better use of the grants. Its implementation and success would be, in great part, up to the Mexican diplomats in the U.S.A. It will be up to the Head Consul of the Mexican Consulates to make the contacts with the Universities within their jurisdiction, establish a collaboration agreement and do the recruitment by for example, present the program and its benefits to interested students and advisors.

It would be ideal that after the one-way student mobility program is introduced, it is monitored to evaluate its outcomes, particularly the attitudes of participants toward Mexico and its image.



The image of Mexico and its citizens in the damaged. The Vianovo and GSD&M polls in 2016 and 2012 show high and stable unfavorable opinions about Mexico. The Mexican government has identified the issue and the need for multifaceted approach that exploits all of the arrows in Mexico’s quiver including the Mexican diaspora. Over the last half century, Mexico transformed its policy toward the Mexican diaspora by offering consular services to empowering it. This policy could be supplemented with a plan focused on the Anglo population and establishing alliances with them. A robust one-way study abroad program along the lines of the ERASMUS program in the European Union would be an effective tool in this effort.

Empirical studies of ERASMUS support the argument that social interactions, as a result of a student exchange programs, improve participant attitudes toward the host country. A one-way Mexico-U.S., “ERASMUS”-like, student exchange program, financed by the Mexican government and other sponsors, will promote common values and understanding and over time help create a positive shift in the attitudes of Americans toward Mexico and Mexicans and consequently better the image of Mexico in the U.S.


*Selene Barceló Monroy is a member of the Mexican Foreign Service; the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs or any agency of the Mexican government.



Barceló Monroy, Selene (2005). “La diáspora mexicana y el Consulado en Chicago”. Foreign Affairs en Español 5 (3), July-September.

BBC (2015). “Trump v Le Pen: In their own words”, December 12. 

Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation, and Research (FOBESII) Achievements May 2013-October 2015 (U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Mexico, 2016). 

Brandenburg, Uwe; Petrova, Dana; Bugárová; Martina; Kunc, Michal; Stiburek, Šimon; Tůmová, Pavla. “The ERASMUS Impact Study Regional Analysis. A Comparative Analysis of the Effects of ERASMUS on the Personality, Skills and Career of students of European Regions and Selected Countries”, Luxembourg: European Commission, 2016, ISBN 978-92-79-52201-7.

Délano, Alexandra (2011). “Mexico and Its Diaspora in the United States. Policies of Emigration since 1848”. Cambridge University Press.

Department of State (DOS) Joint U.S.-Mexico Statement on the U.S.-Mexico Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation, and Research: Connecting Tomorrow’s Leaders Today (January 6, 2015). 

Deutsch, Karl W., S. A. Burrell, and R. Kann (1957) “Political Community and the North Atlantic Area“. New York: Greenwood Press.

El Universal (2016). “Ruiz Massieu llama a cerrar filas ante “coyuntura””, September 10. 

El Universal (2016). “Lanza SRE plan para mejorar imagen en EU”, August 7. 

El Universal (2016). “Embajador de México presenta cartas credenciales a Obama”, June 27. 

European Commission (2015). “ERASMUS Facts and Figures”. 

EEC (1987). Council of Ministers Decision of 15 June 1987 adopting the European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students (ERASMUS)”. Official Journal of the European Communities 166: 20-24. 

Fligstein, Neil (2008). “Euroclash: The EU, European identity, and the future of Europe”. Oxford University Press.

González Gutierrez, Carlos et Ayón, David R. (2016). 

Mitchell, Kristine (2012) “Student mobility and European Identity: ERASMUS Study as a civic experience?“. Journal of Contemporary European Research, 8.4. 

Sigalas, Emmanuel (2010). “Cross-border mobility and European identity: The effectiveness of intergroup contact during the ERASMUS year abroad“. European Union Politics 11.2: 241-265.

University of California Education Abroad Program (UCEAP). 

University of Southern California Study Abroad Office. 

Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (1963). 

Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961). 

Wilson, Lain (2011). “What should we expect of ERASMUS generations’?.”. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies 49.5: 1113-1140. 








The U.S.-Mexico Network’s Imagining 2024 project is designed to provide readers a quick overview of key issues in US-Mexico relations – the background of the issue, its current state, where we ought to be by 2024, and how to get there.


Each short essay is coupled with suggested background readings for those interested in a more detailed understanding of the issue at hand.  And as an electronic publication, both the essays and their associated resource pages are updated as needed to keep the information and analysis fresh.

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