The real challenge to US-Mexico relations

The real challenge to US-Mexico relations
© Getty Images

As Mexico’s presidential election kicks into high gear before votes are cast on July 1, analysts continue to speculate on how Donald Trump may be helping to elect Mexico’s firebrand candidate, front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the leftist MORENA party. Some assume that a nationalist U.S. president — hell-bent on insulting Mexico and one who repeatedly has ambushed Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto as they have sought to engage diplomatically — will cause Mexicans to vote for a nationalist and populist president of their own as a foil.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump faces high stakes in meeting with Erdoğan amid impeachment drama Democrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report MORE certainly has used Mexico as an electoral and political piñata since he began his campaign in 2015. His “America First” and “Make America Great Again” mantras are predicated on a vision of a world that, as he sees it, has assiduously and mercilessly abused and taken advantage of U.S. foreign, security and trade policies. To Trump, few countries epitomize this sin so starkly and on all three issues as Mexico.

ADVERTISEMENT
However, despite Trump’s Mexico-bashing, neither he nor the United States so far have played a relevant role in Mexico’s 2018 presidential election. Notwithstanding how deeply insulted they feel by the U.S. leader, Mexicans have bigger fish to fry as they mull over whom to vote for. Their choice will be driven mainly by a general malaise with the direction of the nation, a rejection of “politics-as-usual” and their anger over issues of impunity, corruption, lack of transparency and accountability, and public insecurity.

 

Even Trump’s latest anti-Mexico tirades regarding border security, NAFTA and Central American transmigration through Mexico — and the condemnation his tweets universally triggered among all four Mexican presidential candidates, the Senate and public opinion — most likely will not move the needle in terms of motivating voters. They do, however, expose a fault line to which many in Washington appear oblivious.

Some voices within the Beltway have argued that day-to-day, government-to-government relations with Mexico continue to deliver the goods, mainly as a retort to those of us who believe that not since the mid-1980s (when the double whammy of colliding foreign policy objectives in then-brewing Central American conflicts and the abduction and murder of a DEA agent by drug traffickers in Mexico) have we witnessed such a level of deterioration in our ties.

Thankfully, Mexico has behaved as the adult in the recent turn of events, and officials on both sides of the border undoubtedly have been doing yeoman’s work by going into containment and damage-control modes to preserve the bilateral relationship and Teflon-coating the critically important NAFTA negotiating rounds. But there’s a larger issue at stake here, and it affects what this relationship may look like in the near future.

Many Mexicans believe that Trump has changed the acceptable rules of U.S. political rhetoric toward its neighbor, and this could have a toxic effect south of the border. Mexico’s opinion of the United States is complicated; most Mexicans hold a generally positive view of Americans, but favorable perceptions of the United States hit rock bottom over the past year. Xenophobia and nativism can become a two-way street. And with 75 percent of Mexicans disagreeing in a recent poll with the way that president Peña Nieto was handling relations with the United States, the appetite and political wiggle room to continue building a forward-leaning, strategic partnership with the United States might be significantly reduced, regardless of who’s elected on July 1.

No candidate will want to be perceived as kowtowing to a U.S. president and administration that have so alienated Mexican public opinion. Mexico certainly will not go rogue on the United States; most politicians in Mexico recognize there’s too much at stake for the country’s prosperity riding on the relationship. But many policies important to U.S. security that Washington has taken for granted — such as transmigration, border security, intelligence exchanges and military cooperation — could be jeopardized if Mexicans demand that their government put all issues of our bilateral agenda on the negotiating table to level the diplomatic playing field.

That President Peña Nieto publicly rebuked President Trump (a first) via a pre-taped televised address, and announced that the Mexican government would reassess ongoing bilateral cooperation mechanisms with the United States, is more than just diplomatic posturing. It points to a wide swath of Mexican public opinion pushing for a more hard-line stance to confront what they perceive as Trump’s bullying.

By the time a new Mexican president assumes office on Dec. 1 for a six-year term, President Trump could well have cost U.S. national security and foreign policy interests dearly, severely undercutting a relationship that has morphed into a beneficial partnership over the past two decades. NAFTA, for one, triggered a singular economic paradigm in today’s global economy: joint supply chains and common production platforms underpinning trade now worth $1.6 trillion in 2016 alone. Mexico today buys more U.S. exports than the combined purchases of — take your pick — Japan and China, the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, or, assuming Brexit as a fait accompli, the European Union.

Our societies are truly interconnected, with millions of Mexicans and Americans living abroad making their homes in the United States and Mexico, respectively. The aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks compelled our two nations to deepen and widen security and intelligence cooperation, whether to jointly confront terrorism, transnational criminal organizations operating on both sides of our border, or regional and global security challenges. The past two decades show that the proverbial rising tide can lift boats on both sides of the Rio Grande.

A sober, honest assessment of U.S. interests needs to take place in Washington. If President Trump inflicts serious structural damage to the bilateral framework between  Mexico and the United States, many in Washington and in state capitals and city halls across the country soon may find themselves asking, “Who lost Mexico?”

Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States (2007-2013), is an international strategic adviser and consultant based in Washington. He is a nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution and a distinguished visiting professor at the Annenberg School of Public Diplomacy at University of Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @Arturo_Sarukhan.