“We’re going to have good relations with Mexico, I hope. And if we don’t, we don’t.” That was President Donald Trump, expressing a remarkable nonchalance, almost indifference, to a relationship that, President George W. Bush called the United States’ most important in the world.
President Trump can do more than just “hope” for good relations with Mexico, as if it were simply a matter of chance. This is Mexico he is talking about, a neighboring country that shares a 2000 mile border with the United States and buys $250 billion annually in goods and services made in the USA. Some ten percent of the US population can trace their origins to Mexico. No other country in the world has more impact on the daily lives of Americans.
With a constant stream of offensive and intimidating rhetoric addressed to Mexico, compounded by a mean-spirited and highly contentious set of policy proposals, Trump himself is largely responsible for the sharp deterioration in bilateral ties in the past two years. A full scale breach between the two countries now seems almost inevitable unless Trump is willing to sharply change his attitude and behavior toward Mexico, Mexicans, and Mexican-Americans. He would have to reverse course by ceasing efforts to impose his will on the Mexican government, and stopping his pursuit of short-term political and economic gains at Mexico’s expense. To be sure, none these changes seem very unlikely. Trump today is steaming ahead, without regard for the damaging consequences, toward a breakdown in the already strained US-Mexican relationship.
Disagreements between Mexico and the US are not uncommon. Tensions between the two nations are ever present, and they occasionally produce open clashes. There is a long history of mistrust, suspicion, and downright bitterness between the two governments. What Trump and his advisors have failed to grasp is that the problems that bother them most about the US-Mexican relations—whether unfair trading practices, persistent balance of payments deficits, illegal migration, manufacturing jobs and companies moving to Mexico, border insecurity, or drug trafficking—they cannot be addressed effectively by the United States alone. Indeed, every one of these problems would be far worse today without the strong, multilayered cooperation that has developed between the two countries since the early 1990s.
Trump can certainly get his way on many of the issues now in dispute with Mexico. Although he will not convince Mexicans to pay for it, US construction firms are lining up to submit designs for a wall on the border and with funds start up included in the president’s budget. Like previous US presidents, Trump has the authority needed to deport large numbers of undocumented Mexican immigrants living in the US (and even some who are here fully legally). The 22-year old NAFTA trade pact allows him to withdraw the US on six months notice. He has already demonstrated his power to dissuade American companies from moving their operations to Mexico.
Still, even if these actions could produce the benefits Trump claims for them, which they decidedly cannot, the US would be worse off than it is today. First, the US would be in danger of losing the valuable support and cooperation that Mexico now provides in coping with migration flows (from Mexico and elsewhere) and other cross-border movements (of more than a million persons a day), curbing the illicit drug trade, collaborating in an array of other law enforcement efforts, and managing water distribution and other natural resource challenges. And the US could no longer depend on Mexico’s help as a partner in dealing with multiple, unforeseen problems that inevitably crop up between neighboring countries. A viral epidemic or other public health calamity could strike the border region. So could an earthquake, other natural disasters, or a criminal or terrorist rampage. Managing these problems requires the trust, goodwill, and cooperation of Mexico.
The current and growing rift between the US and Mexico is not just about disagreements between the Trump administration and the Mexican government. Discord occurs regularly between neighboring countries, even close allies. They do not have to lead to deep or prolonged animosity or open conflict. What has outraged Mexicans today has been Trump’s relentless bullying. The proposed wall, a powerful symbol of division and distrust, was a substantial provocation in itself. Insisting that Mexico pay for the unwanted barrier was outright intimidation, aggravated by (1) Trump’s claims of unfair trade practices, accusing Mexico of bilking the US, (2) threats to impose taxes on family remittances and large tariffs on imports from Mexico (thereby violating treaties and international trade rules), and (3) his suggestion, which sounded like a warning to Mexicans, that the US could send troops to Mexico to deal with drug cartels. Moreover, rather than acknowledging a shared responsibility, as his three predecessors did, Trump consistently blames Mexico for US drug problems.
Even more offensive to Mexicans than his efforts to strong arm their country’s government has been Trump’s humiliating commentary on Mexican immigrants in the US, regularly suggesting that many of them are drug dealers, gang members, and violent criminals. His threats of massive deportations are disrupting the lives of Mexican-Americans and their families, the vast majority of whom are legally in the United States, and leaving them feeling unwanted and persecuted. No Mexican government can maintain good relations with the US when its citizens are being insulted and harassed. Imagine Washington’s reaction to Mexico or any other nation that systematically offended and mistreated Americans.
US-Mexican relations have reached their lowest point in a generation or more. Today, across Mexico, the Trump administration is viewed as an outright adversary that cannot be trusted and must be resisted. Making matters worse, a sizeable number of Americans, though thankfully short of a majority, are convinced that Mexico is the primary source of some of the US’s most critical problems and setbacks. Many of them welcome the US president’s plans to shut Mexico’s products and citizens out of the United States, making Mexicans even angrier and more wary.
The damage already been done to US-Mexican relations will not be easily or quickly rolled back. If the Trump administration fails soon to revamp its approach to its Southern neighbor, relations are bound to even become more embittered and possibly break down completely.
Despite the pressures from almost all segments of Mexican society to reject US overtures, the Mexican government has made clear its willingness to initiate a wide-ranging dialogue with Washington. That now may be the only path to keep the bilateral relationship from becoming more strained and bitter and avert the prospect of an open rupture. It is discouraging that the Trump administration has so far shown little interest in talking with Mexican authorities about most of the issues at stake.
Opening a dialogue with Mexico will require Trump to take several bold, politically high risk steps on the part of Trump himself. He would have to moderate or reverse, his aggressive, at times openly hostile, stance toward Mexico. That would mean abandoning a key element in his strategy for both winning the White House and holding on to his supporters today.
As a start, Trump will have to call a halt to inflammatory threats to impose his will on Mexico. On issues and policies that matter to both countries, Mexicans will not accept decisions unilaterally decreed from the White House, especially one that is so deeply disliked in Mexico. No Mexican government can accommodate a string of demands from Washington and survive politically. Where there are disagreements, the Trump administration and the Mexican government have to find compromise or look forward to worsening confrontation. The Trump government, regardless of how strongly it feels about the need for a border wall or for an overhaul of NAFTA, cannot disregard Mexico’s strong views and interests on these matters—or the country’s potentially explosive politics.
Rather than rushing to erect a barrier on their common border, why shouldn’t the US government be willing to hear Mexico’s objections, review the problems that Trump thinks a wall would address, and explore alternative solutions that Mexico could support? Negotiations on NAFTA appear increasingly likely. They will have a far greater chance of success if the US and Mexico start with the objective of producing gains for both sides, or at least minimizing losses, rather than viewing the exercise as a zero-sum proposition between adversaries. It would also help if the Trump administration agreed drop its threats to scrap the treaty if the revisions do not fully satisfy US demands and then impose a heavy tax on imports from Mexico.
Ideally, the US and Mexico might also initiate a dialogue on US immigration policy more broadly, including temporary labor migration, deportations, and provision of legal status to unauthorized migrants residing in the US. These, however, all raise difficult and sensitive issues that have long been matters of bitter contention within the US, and between the two nations. Progress is today highly unlikely on any of them, at least until Mexico and the US can agree on border controls. This is a discussion that is needed but is probably best deferred.
The risks of a painful rupture in US-Mexican relations cannot be dismissed. For the US, the costs will almost certainly be far greater than any possible benefits that could result from Trump getting what he wants on each of the specific issues in dispute. Mexico will have to pay a far higher price, but most Mexicans appear willing to sacrifice a great deal, including painful economic losses, to avoid yielding to American pressures or tolerating the mistreatment of Mexicans in the US.
With Mexican presidential elections scheduled next year, the US could well end up in an increasingly antagonistic relationship with its closest neighbor and arguably its most important partner. Only in the last 25 to 30 years have the US and Mexico developed a wide-ranging cooperative relationship that today encompasses annual cross-border commerce of some $600 billion as well as extensive collaboration to manage migration from Mexico and Central America, bring the illicit drug trade under control, and join in an array of other law enforcement and security efforts. Prior to NAFTA’s approval in the early 1990s, Mexican governments were mostly preoccupied with defending their nation’s independence and integrity from the US. That also seems to be Mexico’s main concern today, and it could last for some time.