Mexico is learning that if you give Trump an inch, he'll take a mile

Mexico is rapidly learning that appeasing Donald Trump is, at best, a short-term solution.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) has adopted an attitude of placation and appeasement in his dealings with Trump and has tried to either ignore provocations from the White House or make concessions to avoid an unwanted spat. That strategy has failed.

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AMLO now finds himself in the middle of the most Trumpian of diplomatic storms, with the U.S. president threatening what amounts to a “nuclear option” in bilateral relations, a closing of the border and the imposition of tariffs on Mexican autos due to his perception that Mexico is not doing enough to help stem Central American migration. 

Since taking office, AMLO and his cabinet have repeated a mantra of love and understanding for migrants, arguing that instead of deportation, governments should address the root causes of the flows.

AMLO believed that he had reached an understanding with Trump on Central America and in exchange had agreed to keep migrants in Mexico while they applied for refugee status. This implied considerable economic and political costs for Mexico, but the prevailing attitude of cooperation with the U.S. held.

Then, last week in Miami, Mexican Interior Secretary Olga Sanchez Cordero under pressure from Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenRick Perry planning to leave Trump administration: report Cummings invites Stephen Miller to testify before Oversight panel on 'troubling' immigration policies Arizona mayor declares emergency over feds dropping migrants off in community MORE, made concessions to the U.S., agreeing to step up efforts to detain Central American migrants in Mexico and return them to their countries of origin. 

This won Mexico only the briefest of respites. Within a couple of days, President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Dems demand Barr cancel 'inappropriate' press conference on Mueller report DOJ plans to release 'lightly redacted' version of Mueller report Thursday: WaPo Nadler accuses Barr of 'unprecedented steps' to 'spin' Mueller report MORE was using his best uppercase tweeting to bemoan the fact that “Mexico is doing NOTHING to help stop the flow of illegal immigrants,” as he threatened to close the border.

Immediately, lines began to form at the border, as border agents were reassigned to check for illegal immigrants, delaying truck revisions by hours and costing businesses millions of dollars in lost revenue.

In Mexico, AMLO claimed popular support for his decision to not respond to the provocation, stating that the Mexican people are his “think tank” and policy advisors. 

By Tuesday, AMLO’s approach appeared to be paying dividends. U.S. business associations and border-state politicians stepped forward to let the president know that this would be a costly mistake, in both economic and political terms.

Trump appeared to dial back his anger, claiming credit for the fact that, “After many years (decades), Mexico is apprehending large numbers of people at their southern border.” There was a tangible sigh of relief in Mexico as Trump then appeared to redirect his venom toward the Central American countries and the Democratic Party. 

But Mexico should have known better than to relax. For it is apparent that Trump is now more Trump than ever. In fact, since the release of the findings of the Mueller report, we may even be hitting “peak Trump.”

On Thursday, the president made extraordinarily confusing statements, saying he will give Mexico a year to stem the flow of migrants and drugs into the U.S. but would close the border or impose tariffs on Mexican auto imports if it fails to do so.

Trump has finally managed to bring together three of his favorite political hobby-horses: migration, drugs and the trade deficit. Mexico is in the eye of that storm.

There can be little doubt that a border shutdown would hit Mexico hard, but it would also be extremely painful for the U.S. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has estimated that the economic impact would be many multiples of the $1.4 billion a day in cross-border trade.

A lack of intermediate goods and parts from Mexico due to the knock-on effect on U.S. manufacturing would bring about factory closures and layoffs. In the auto industry alone, the chamber claimed that a shutdown of U.S. factories would cost $1.3 billion a day.

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The auto sector is a significant part of overall economic activity. In 2018, it was responsible for 3 percent of U.S. GDP and was the largest contributor to U.S. jobs among manufacturers. If a major interruption of that activity were to occur, the president’s much–vaunted record of economic growth would look far more tenuous.

One hopes that good sense will prevail. One hopes that the president will realize that the economic costs of these two actions would amount to political suicide in the 2020 election. One hopes that the Mexican government will do enough to placate the U.S. president. One hopes that an extraordinarily damaging outcome can be avoided.

But as AMLO is discovering, giving President Trump an inch may only encourage him to take a mile. At some point, the Mexican president will find himself with no other option than to make a stand. At that point, we'll enter unchartered territory, and the future of the bilateral relationship will be anyone’s guess. 

Duncan Wood is the director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center.