MEXICO CITY ― Mexico’s relationship with the United States has taken an ominous unilateral turn. Trump imposes, Mexico reacts. Last week, what looked like the start of a bilateral negotiation became a tunnel toward an ultimatum.
After Trump unilaterally ordered a wall built on the U.S.-Mexico border and demanded that Mexico pay for it, President Enrique Peña Nieto called off his visit. Then Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, announced that the U.S. would impose a unilateral tariff of 20 percent on all Mexican imports and pay for the construction that way.
Diplomacy by ultimatum can create quick victories but it can also lead to high costs in the long run. Trump’s anti-Mexican offensive challenges two of the intangible foundations in the relationship between both countries: political stability and nationalism. Trump’s hostility threatens to reawaken anti-American, Mexican nationalism and create instability here.
Diplomacy by ultimatum can create quick victories but high costs in the long run.
After World War II, the U.S. feared Mexico could become a hotbed of instability, like Cuba and some countries in Central America in the 1980’s. Successive Mexican governments did a decent job keeping the country safe from the regional violence that was a mainstay of the Cold War.
Then, in the 1980s, the war on drugs broke down both security and governance in Mexico. But it did not turn the country against the U.S. At the same time, the accelerated demographic integration between both countries, NAFTA’s binding effect and the Americanization of the Mexican way of life diluted the country’s old anti-gringo stance: it changed our perception of having an ugly American neighbor.
Now, Trump’s diplomacy by ultimatum erases the key lines of the bilateral relationship. On the one hand, beating up an already weakened government like Mexico’s can open the doors for un-governability. On the other, diplomacy by ultimatum can awaken history’s demons and make both countries return to their darkest hours of misunderstandings.
Mexican governability is currently very low. A brawl with the American government could lead to destabilization. The robust anti-Trump sentiment in Mexico could give way to unpredictable incidents of protest and violence. This would be the end of the understanding that has governed the relationship between the two countries over the past few decades. It would bring about a new era of disagreements.
The robust anti-Trump sentiment in Mexico could give way to unpredictable incidents of protest and violence.
Trump wants to replace and reorder the entire binational flow with a wall, whose discriminatory undertones can barely be exaggerated. The Mexican community that lives in the U.S. is threatened like never before. Never has that community been larger or more important to both countries, but it is now under siege with deportation rules that resemble racial discrimination. This is the biggest challenge that Mexico and the U.S. face in terms of solidarity and human rights: containing Trump’s rapid transition from Mexico-bashing to an anti-Mexican policy.
Trump also wants to suspend or shape NAFTA as he pleases. NAFTA is the economic treaty that has yielded the greatest benefits for Mexico in all of its history. It is the guiding light for the only sector of the Mexican economy that is growing and modernizing itself.
In 1994, Mexico’s exports to the U.S. were worth around $50 billion. Last year, they totaled around $270 billion. The “Mexican NAFTA economy” is thus equivalent to about a quarter of Mexico’s GDP. So a NAFTA crisis in Mexico would result in a proportional loss of economic growth: thousands or millions of jobs lost on this side of the border and more Mexicans looking for jobs in the U.S.
A NAFTA crisis would result in more Mexicans looking for jobs in the U.S.
Trump also threatens our four U.S.-Mexico security pillars: military cooperation, the war on drugs, anti-terrorism and migration control. Mexico and the U.S. have more than a dozen different active military agreements, most of them signed after 2006. Between 2013 and 2015, the Pentagon trained thousands of Mexican officers, soldiers and policemen. Through the Merida Initiative, Mexico has received almost $2.5 billion in equipment and training. Between 1996 and today, the Department of Defense has pumped billions of dollars into its Mexican counterpart. Much of that money has gone to buying American equipment: guns, planes, ships, helicopters and technology. In 2015, 74 percent of all weapons bought abroad by Mexico came from the U.S.
The U.S. embassy in Mexico is one of the biggest in the world. American agents from a variety of security agencies operate underneath its cover. The DEA alone has a vast network of informants and offices across Mexico, and it supports an elite Mexican police force called the Sensitive Investigations Unit, whose purpose is the pursuit of drug kingpins.
If hostilities between the U.S. and Mexico heighten, this complex web of cooperative security efforts could unravel, making both countries less safe. With all those American weapons now in Mexico, the last thing either country needs is anti-American nationalism and instability in Mexico.
Translated from the Spanish by Esteban Illades.