Trump and Mexico: 3 basic truths of the bilateral relationship revealed

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This week, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) will travel to Washington D.C. to meet with President Trump. The visit, hurriedly organized over the past two weeks (presidential visits normally require months of planning), now has an exclusive focus on bilateral relations. The original intent of the visit was to celebrate the coming into force of the new North American free trade agreement known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada has shown no interest in traveling to Washington at this time to meet with Trump or AMLO. Instead, Trudeau is focused firmly on addressing the many domestic challenges faced by Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic, preferring to speak with AMLO by phone on Monday. AMLO, having said repeatedly that his main focus is on Mexico and that the best foreign policy is a good domestic policy, has strangely decided that the middle of a pandemic is the right time to make his first official visit to another country.

Everybody knows by now that Trump is not an ordinary president. He uses power disparities, personal relationships and an ebullient, aggressive rhetorical style to communicate both domestically and internationally. Clearly, AMLO believes that his visit to Washington will distract an increasingly worried Mexican public from the multiple problems afflicting the country, including ever-rising homicide rates, a collapsing economy, ongoing problems with massive and widespread corruption, and of course a failed government approach to managing COVID-19. But his decision to meet with Trump at the White House at a time like this only serves to further reinforce some basic realities in the relationship that have become painfully obvious since 2017:

  1. Power asymmetries matter: Trump has an innate sense for using a dominant position to get what he wants from less powerful opponents. In the bilateral relationship, this has meant bullying and pushing Mexico to adapt to U.S. demands on trade, migration and security. The Trump administration has used the threat of border closures and punitive tariffs on Mexican imports to force Mexico to do its bidding. Since December 2018 this has been a highly successful approach, with Mexico now serving as a highly effective barrier to Central American migrants as they make their way towards the United States. The visit itself puts this fact in high relief. AMLO has not traveled abroad thus far, shows no interest in international affairs and has repeatedly stated that he will not interfere in the internal affairs of another country. Yet, here he is as election campaign season swings into high gear, while his own country suffers from a disastrous and tragic pandemic, economic crisis and horrific homicide rates. 
  1. Mexico matters in the United States: Since Trump began his aggressive rhetorical onslaught against Mexico and Mexicans in 2015, diverse actors here in the United States have rallied to defend both Mexico and the bilateral relationship. People whose voices had never been raised in defense of either Mexico or NAFTA were suddenly extolling the virtues of decades of friendly relations and the construction of the world’s most competitive economic region. Politicians from both parties, businesses, NGOs, universities, think tanks and labor unions came forward to explain why the bilateral relationship matters to America. On at least two occasions, this meant impassioned calls from senior-ranking Republicans and billionaire business leaders to the White House to prevent president Trump from unilaterally withdrawing from NAFTA. In large part because of its importance, once the relationship came under threat, powerful interests were mobilized to defend it. 
  1. Institutions have endured but they are under threat: Neither Trump nor AMLO spend much of their days worrying about the strength of public institutions in either of their two countries, and the same can be said to be true in the bilateral relationship. A more personalized approach to politics and to diplomacy has marked the last three and a half years in U.S.-Mexico ties but, remarkably, institutions have survived. The most important institution, NAFTA, has evolved and we now have the USMCA. The institutional ties between the State Department and the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Relations have continued despite cuts to the Mexican budget and a more challenging environment. Military and security agencies on both sides of the border have managed to maintain high levels of trust and communication despite the lack of leadership from the executive branches. But not all institutional ties have prospered. There has not been a North American Leaders Summit (NALS) since 2016. Similarly, a meeting of the High-Level Economic Dialogue (HLED), an annual conference that focuses on issues of economic competitiveness between the two governments, hasn’t taken place since the same year. And last but not least, the Merida Initiative that has guided security cooperation since 2007 has been weakened and become outdated and is in desperate need of strengthening.

Whatever happens in the meeting between AMLO and Trump, the next U.S. administration must focus on strengthening the relationship and rebuilding institutions. Whoever wins the November presidential election here in the United States must invest more time, effort and resources in the bilateral relationship and in the institutions that have kept the relationship alive for the past 3 1/2 years. As a recent report from the Wilson Center and the U.S.-Mexico Foundation argues, the security and prosperity of both nations will be furthered by such an approach. The relationship is simply too important to be left to the whims of presidents, which sometimes amount to slings and arrows. Mexico matters, and it’s about time we treated the relationship with due respect.

Duncan Wood is the director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute.

Tags Andrés Manuel López Obrador Canada Donald Trump Free trade Justin Trudeau Mexico NAFTA NAFTA NAFTA renegotiation USMCA

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