Bets are already being placed on the political longevity of Jorge Castaneda, Mexico's premier left-leaning intellectual, at the helm of the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Some argue that he'll last eight months, others predict three years, others suggest he'll resign on a matter of principle in due course.
The reasons behind the skepticism are simple. Every time Castaneda is described, two contending adjectives are used: brilliant but embattled, talented but tempestuous, visionary but polemical. This otherwise fatal combination, however, could turn out to be ideal. His vices could become his virtues. He could reach the end of his six-year appointment after breathing new life into Mexico's foreign policy.
The most constant criticism of Castaneda is that he lacks diplomatic experience. According to conventional wisdom, Castaneda doesn't know how to listen, appease and concede. Castaneda's father was also a foreign affairs minister, and the old school of Mexican diplomacy resents the arrival of a prodigal son with new ideas. So the most brutal battles probably won't take place between Castaneda and the outside world, but between Castaneda and the Mexican bureaucracy.
A democratic Mexico needs a new diplomacy, a new way of looking at the world and interacting with it. Mexico's incoming president, Vicente Fox, has said so himself: The era of diplomacy based on half-truths and double entendres has come to an end. Instead of side-stepping the issue of immigration, Mexico under Fox is going to place it at center stage. Instead of sweeping controversial issues under the rug, the new Mexico will seek to put them on the bargaining table.
In order to achieve those goals, Mexico will need a combative and creative diplomat who will be willing to run risks and assume their costs. Castaneda has spent years thinking about how to update Mexican nationalism, how to redefine Mexico's relationship with the United States and how to turn Mexican culture into a foreign-policy tool. He hasn't always been consistent, he hasn't always been right, but he has invariably sought to stir the waters.
At times, Castaneda has seemed like a walking contradiction. He fought against the North American Free Trade Agreement, and now he has joined a government that believes in open borders. He argued in the book "Limits to Friendship" that better relations between Mexico and the U.S. meant less relations, and now he's advocating a North American union.
He sought in another book, "Utopia Unarmed," to "formulate and implement a constructive and pragmatic critique to the current economic and social project in Latin America" from a left-wing perspective, and now he will work with a team on the center-right. But Castaneda's dilemmas are the same ones that have plagued, and continue to plague, progressive stances around the planet: How to keep the aspirations of the left alive in a globalized world? How to combine the best of leftist views with the best of market forces?
Castaneda believes that today the answer can be found by working in the Fox government. From the inside, he can start a new dialogue with the U.S. based on the premise that Mexico has the power to negotiate and will do so effectively. He can push for a full, equal and stable relationship between uneasy neighbors. He can take on "Mexico-bashers" in the U.S. and cajole them into dealing with a country they despise.
As a counterweight in a largely conservative cabinet, he can talk about the rich and the redistribution of wealth, about taxes and inequality, about the pragmatism of the Fox team and the purism of the Mexican left. He can be a bridge and a conscience.
Castaneda has been attacked for his astronomical arrogance. He has been criticized for playing hardball and disregarding the consequences. Even those who know and like him admit that he can be insufferable because he seems to be in permanent disagreement with humanity. Yet only those who never take a stand never offend anyone. Only those who think a great deal think differently. Castaneda has always been fueled by stubborn idealism, by the need to rock the boat and change its course.
Napoleon argued that the essential quality in a diplomat should be the ability to keep his mouth closed. But a diplomat cannot defend a government without knowing how to call it into question, and Castaneda's essential quality is the strength and the clarity of his voice. Now, more than ever, it will be imperative for him to speak loudly on Mexico's behalf.