Normalcy and rationality. Both have gone missing in the U.S.-Mexico relationship during the past 18 months.
Nevertheless, an enduring, profound desire to see them prevail in the wake of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s election as Mexico’s next president is leading many to misread the likeliest immediate future for the U.S.-Mexico relationship.
Reasons for optimism that the most important and complex relationship the United States has in the world will return to solid footing are obvious. Most notably, López Obrador has done virtually everything for which the United States could have hoped in the early stages of his transition.
After meeting with a high-ranking U.S. government delegation, López Obrador penned a seven-page letter to President Donald Trump that laid out, in large measure, almost all for which any U.S. president could have hoped.
Any U.S. president that is, except the current occupant of the Oval Office.
The greatest obstacle to a rational relationship between the United States and Mexico remains the same person it has been for the past 18 months – President Trump.
Despite Trump’s recent praise of López Obrador and the belief that he sees him as a kindred spirit evidenced by his reported reference to López Obrador as “Juan Trump,” nothing has changed with respect to the fundamentals that lie at the heart of Trump’s approach to Mexico.
To suggest otherwise is to allow hope to triumph over all available evidence, however dumbfounding and uncomfortable that evidence may be.
The fundamental challenges facing Mexico and its incoming government in dealing with Trump are the same that have vexed the outgoing Mexican administration.
First, “Mexico” and “Mexicans” are essential cyphers in Trump’s nativist politics.
When Trump refers to Mexico and Mexicans he is seldom actually taking about either. Instead, he is preying upon a volatile (albeit non-causal) mix of decades-long economic stagnation and demographic transformation affecting the United States while othering Mexico and Mexicans as the culprits.
Second, Trump’s simplistic, zero-sum view of the international economy has led to an underappreciated, fundamental shift in U.S. policy toward Mexico.
For at least the past three decades the United States has understood that investment and economic development in Mexico was directly in the U.S. national interest. Now, the President, his trade representative, and his commerce secretary have all said on multiple occasions that uncertainty that slows investment in Mexico is in the U.S. interest.
These realities mean there is likely nothing Mexico can do to directly change Trump’s nativist and protectionist course.
One need look no further than the outgoing Mexican administration’s efforts to see that the path to a positive bilateral relationship does not run through personal ingratiation.
It was Mexico’s current government that handed then-candidate Trump an enormous, personalized gift when it hosted him, with all the trappings of an official presidential visit, at the height of the 2016 presidential campaign. And it is Mexico’s outgoing Foreign Minister who regularly (and accurately and irrelevantly) boasts that no Mexican official has ever visited the White House more than him.
Despite this, the U.S.-Mexico relationship is at its modern nadir with further perils ahead.
Just this week, the president has doubled down negatively in areas fundamental to the bilateral relationship. He is reportedly seeking a 25 percent tariff on auto imports and trying to buy agriculture sector peace with multi-billion-dollar, taxpayer-funded subsidy for those affected by retaliatory tariffs sparked by his reckless trade war.
As the U.S. midterm elections draw closer, Trump’s instinct to solidify his standing with his base through nativist and protectionist appeals will likely intensify. And Mexico will again find itself in the president’s twitter and campaign rally crosshairs.
All who believe in a constructive U.S.-Mexico relationship must be clear eyed about where things stand and recognize the need to contain the harm that unchecked nativism and protectionism can inflict.
The key to doing so not only rests with across-the-board engagement by the incoming Mexican government with federal, state, and local elected officials well beyond the West Wing, but also with intensified interaction and coordination between private and civil society actors in both countries.
Normalcy and rationality will not passively regain the upper hand in the U.S.-Mexico relationship. They need champions. And they need them now.