Last week President Obama told Europe that the U.S. is going to behave differently in the international arena.  Whether you believe this can happen or not, our southern neighbors will be waiting for the same news at the Summit of the Americas and in Mexico this week.  We should deliver that message and follow it up with action.

  Business as usual south of our border will prove to doubters in Europe and elsewhere that we’re not serious.

Take Mexico, for example.  We already signaled a change when Secretary of State Clinton visited Mexico last month.  It’s about time.  After decades of denial, we publicly acknowledged our role in the brutal drug war raging in Mexico.  It must have been music to the ears of President Calderon, who bravely took on the drug cartels in December 2006, realizing there was no other way to recover and govern Mexico.  The Merida Initiative, which pledged $1.4 billion over three years for Mexico and Central America to address the drug trafficking problem, was also welcome.  However, between legislative cuts and the bureaucracy, we’ve barely begun to implement the projects several years later.

Mexicans tend to view themselves as the victims of U.S. policy on a range of issues, but on drugs and guns they have a point.  Yes, drug addiction is on the rise in Mexico, based on the illegal drug industry that we support.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, up to 90 percent of the weapons seized at scenes of drug violence in Mexico can be traced to U.S. commercial sources.  Statistics vary but are nonetheless significant for the overall number of weapons that arrive from the U.S. so that drug gangs can fight among themselves and with the police and military.

Fortunately, with the heightened alert in U.S. states along the Mexican border, Congress too admitted that the violence in Mexico is caused by the U.S. drug habit and fought with U.S. weapons, authorizing an additional $500 million over the next five years to fight the drug cartels.  These public confessions set the stage to shift the U.S.-Mexico dynamic, but how much do we really want change?  Will the U.S. begin to see Mexico as a “strategic partner,” a role it might deserve for sharing a border almost 2,000 miles long?

The American public doesn’t get it yet.  If we did get it, we would seriously do something about illegal drugs and we would change our gun laws.  Nightly news reports still warn about the dangers that the “Mexican drug war will seep across the border,” leading us to believe that the threat is external.  The problem is here, and the fighting that takes place in Mexico protects the industry in the U.S.

We have an opportunity with Mexico and President Calderon.  He hasn’t pushed us on immigration, so President Obama can sidestep that thorny issue.  Mexico needs our help in dealing with the drug cartels, and it needs free trade, so we should be ready to reinforce bilateral trade and deal with the causes of violence on our side of the border.  President Obama should promise Mexico to change the way we deal with drugs and guns in the U.S. … and then take action.

Europe will be watching how we deal with our neighbors.  Illegal trafficking in drugs and arms, along with human trafficking, are problems Europe faces with its neighbors, too.  If we are serious about being responsible partners in our own neighborhood, then perhaps we can be trusted to address those and other issues elsewhere.

Lynn Roche is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.