Will President-elect Trump shatter America’s most important bilateral relationship?
- By Michael ShifterMichael Shifter is president of the Inter-American Dialogue.
With the stunning victory of Donald Trump, the tremors of the political earthquake in the United States are being felt and absorbed around the world — but perhaps nowhere more acutely than in Mexico. From the outset of Trump’s seemingly far-fetched campaign for the presidency, Mexico has been the chief proxy for the two central issues at the heart of his message to an anxious electorate: immigration and trade.
The prospect that he might now attempt to put in practice his outlandish proposals on both have understandably heightened apprehension in our southern neighbor. What seemed like a bad dream has become reality. The already shaky peso has fallen by some 13 percent, to more than 20 pesos per dollar — its biggest drop in more than two decades.
Trump, notably incoherent on many ideas, has been nothing but consistent in his call to build a wall, paid for by Mexico, on the border with the United States, that would seek to keep out Mexicans who, he has repeatedly — and falsely — claimed, are “flooding” into our country. The idea is not only morally abhorrent and offensive, but manifestly impractical and would come with an exorbitant cost. Few believe it could actually be implemented (probably including Trump, though the promise worked politically).
Trump has also pledged to deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants now residing in the United States — the majority of whom are Mexican. This proposal, too, is unworkable and would be absurdly expensive. Though at points during the campaign, Trump slightly moderated this extreme, hardline position, his rhetoric and tone have generally been virulent. In his radical stance on immigration — with Mexico as his prime target — Trump cynically, though shrewdly, played on the national security fears of what he wrongly contended was an uncontrolled situation on the border, as well as the presence of millions of unauthorized migrants in the United States.
Of course, what has most alienated Mexicans — and, by extension, Latin Americans, and many Latinos in the United States — has been Trump’s nakedly bigoted language. His epithets of Mexicans as “rapists” and “criminals” and drug dealers have been profoundly hateful and insulting. For many Mexicans — some of whom I spoke with in Mexico over a year ago, well before Trump was the Republican nominee — the failure of other U.S. politicians and other leading figures to more forcefully and publicly repudiate such rhetoric was particularly hurtful. One prominent Mexican business leader told me that, as a result of such acquiescence, U.S.-Mexican relations “had been set back by some 20 years.” Even if Hillary Clinton had won, there would have been a lot of work to do to rebuild trust and repair the damage in bilateral relations.
Trump also used Mexico, along with China, to drive home his markedly anti-trade message, which resonated widely in the United States in this election — including in the Democratic primary, as expressed in Bernie Sanders’s formidable challenge to Clinton. Trump put his finger on a legitimate grievance felt by many left behind by the globalized economy.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), with the United States, Mexico, and Canada, signed by Bill Clinton in 1994 and backed by Hillary, was Trump’s main target. He claimed that the deal was prejudicial for the United States and constantly complained that other countries “are taking our jobs.” Though Trump has promised to renegotiate NAFTA it is unclear whether he will follow through on his pledge. He has the authority to unilaterally withdraw from the agreement, but the economic costs of that decision would be prohibitive, as well as the political consequences of acting without the support of Congress. In any case, it is hard to imagine the future smiles and handshakes among the “three amigos” — the presidents of the United States and Mexico, and the Canadian prime minister — at the regular North American Leaders’ Summits.
Indeed, the relationship between Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan will be critical in determining the extent to which the real estate magnate implements policy changes both on trade and immigration. Ryan, after all, supports free trade agreements such as NAFTA and also embraces a far more liberal view on immigration, advocating a path to legal status for the 11 million undocumented. Having astutely employed his negative agenda on Mexico to be elected president, Trump will now have to turn to the task of governing and can no longer rely on empty slogans. His ability to keep his movement happy — yet deal with the Congress and act pragmatically in pursuing his agenda — will be tested.
However tempting it may be, it is a mistake, however, to believe that all Trump supporters back all of his preposterous ideas. A Mexican journalist who is based in Washington, D.C., and regularly (and bravely) covered Trump rallies throughout the campaign told me that the people he interviewed for the most part did not subscribe to his ideas about building a wall on the border or deporting millions of undocumented immigrants. They considered those proposals too radical and unrealistic. Rather, they attended the rallies because, to them, Trump was refreshingly straight-talking and seemed determined to shake things up in a corrupt Washington, which was ultimately the formula that got him elected.
Trump’s Mexico focus gained heighted prominence with his unexpected visit with President Enrique Peña Nieto in September, which he tried to use to show that he knew something about foreign policy and to “act presidential” on an issue so fundamental for his campaign. For Peña Nieto, who was deeply worried about what a possible Trump presidency would mean for Mexico, the visit proved particularly infelicitous and was savagely criticized at home, especially for the failure to stand up to Trump and reject his incendiary, ominous rhetoric.
Now that Mexicans’ worst fears have been realized, the country faces the dilemma of how to deal with the incoming U.S. president — whether to seek to deepen areas of bilateral cooperation such as jointly monitoring the border, or stand its ground and pursue a more independent course and greater distance from the United States.
For Trump, the question is whether he will fully fathom what is at stake for the United States and find a path that is less threatening and abusive than his rhetoric has been. After all, Mexico is America’s third-largest trading partner (after Canada and China) and millions of U.S. jobs depend on preserving that relationship. The two societies are profoundly and increasingly intertwined. People of Mexican origin represent around two-thirds of the total Hispanic population in the United States. According to Pew Research Center, in 2012, more than 22 million people born in the United States self-identified as Hispanic of Mexican origin. And, for what it’s worth, more than 8 million people visited Mexico from the United States in 2015, representing nearly 18 percent of all travel abroad by Americans.
Expectations in Mexico for an easy and cordial relationship with the Trump administration are extremely low. The wounds left by the campaign are deep and are likely to persist. Trump, though, has showed time and again that he is full of surprises and is able to defy expectations. Whether he will do so on what George W. Bush rightly characterized 15 years ago as America’s “most important bilateral relationship” is a big question.
Photo credit: YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images