Argument

Trump’s Ruinous Stance on Mexico Threatens America

If Trump continues to undermine Mexico, he would make the United States less prosperous and less secure.

US presidential candidate Donald Trump (R) delivers a joint press conference with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in Mexico City on August 31, 2016.
Donald Trump was expected in Mexico Wednesday to meet its president, in a move aimed at showing that despite the Republican White House hopeful's hardline opposition to illegal immigration he is no close-minded xenophobe. Trump stunned the political establishment when he announced late Tuesday that he was making the surprise trip south of the border to meet with President Enrique Pena Nieto, a sharp Trump critic.
 / AFP / YURI CORTEZ        (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
US presidential candidate Donald Trump (R) delivers a joint press conference with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in Mexico City on August 31, 2016. Donald Trump was expected in Mexico Wednesday to meet its president, in a move aimed at showing that despite the Republican White House hopeful's hardline opposition to illegal immigration he is no close-minded xenophobe. Trump stunned the political establishment when he announced late Tuesday that he was making the surprise trip south of the border to meet with President Enrique Pena Nieto, a sharp Trump critic. / AFP / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Well, that did not take long. President Donald Trump has impulse-tweeted his way to his first diplomatic crisis and seems intent on destabilizing Mexico, one of the United States’ most important partners.

If Trump continues to recklessly squeeze the Mexican economy, undermine the Mexican rule of law, and fuel Mexican nationalism, he would soon unleash a full-blown national security crisis that would make the United States less prosperous and less secure.

Undermining Mexico is no minor thing; Mexico is the United States’ third-largest trading partner and the United States is by far Mexico’s most important economic partner. Mexico ranks second among U.S. export markets and more than 40 percent of the value added in Mexican exports to the United States is of U.S. origin. In 2015, total bilateral trade amounted to $531.1 billion. Mexico is also a critical security and counternarcotics partner.

In recent years, migration from Mexico, in no small measure because of its enhanced prosperity, has basically dried up — the vast majority of migrants crossing the Southwest border into the United States are from elsewhere in the Americas and the world. But a surefire way to restart Mexican migration would be to plunge Mexico’s economy into crisis. We last saw that when the so-called 1994-1995 Tequila Crisis contributed to high levels of migration through the early 2000s.

The weakness of Mexico’s currency shows how Trump has systematically undermined the Mexican economy by creating uncertainty about the U.S.-Mexico partnership at every turn. The day after Trump’s election victory, for example, was the Mexican peso’s worst day since the 1994-1995 crisis. Now, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s canceling of his Jan. 31 meeting with Trump has erased the peso’s steady recovery in recent days, when it seemed something like normality was returning to the partnership.

Trump’s plan to build a border wall funded by U.S. taxpayers — that his own Homeland Security secretary says won’t work — and then somehow extort payment while threatening big border taxes for goods entering from Mexico only further undermines our neighbor’s economy and stability. As if these “unintended” consequences were not proof enough that Trump is in over his head, the border wall executive order’s call for a report on the last five years of U.S. assistance to Mexico shows that whoever wrote it does not have the first clue about the relationship. The White House should not hold its breath waiting for a number found in a basic Google search if it thinks assistance somehow gives it leverage to extract “payment” for Trump’s wall.

Credible estimates of the cost of Trump’s U.S. taxpayer-funded wall put the price tag at $25 billion to build and $7.5 billion to maintain. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service puts total U.S. assistance to Mexico during the past five years at $1.1 billion. At that rate, it will take 100 years of withholding future assistance to break even just on construction costs. Even if the math worked, withholding assistance, much of it dedicated to supporting rule-of-law reform, would be counterproductive. Mexico needs more effective courts and better police — for the benefit of both countries — as more effective rule of law is key to Mexico’s long-term stability and prosperity.

The president’s destabilization efforts do not stop at his wall obsession. Nor do they stop at self-defeating threats to cut assistance. They extend to his de facto policy of mass deportation, set in motion with yet another executive order. A major influx of deported nationals to Mexico would add economic and social tension to a country already struggling with the economic effects of belligerent tweets and the low price of oil.

Beyond the direct negative effects of the president’s actions, he is making us less safe by stoking Mexican nationalism, making it harder for Peña Nieto and political leaders to maintain the role of the adult in the relationship and seek cooperation with the United States.

Eventually, political reality will force the hand of Mexico’s political leaders to do more than cancel visits to Washington. When it does, the breakdown in cooperation, including vital security partnerships, will have an immediate effect on U.S. security interests. Antagonizing Mexico is precisely the opposite of what needs to happen if the United States, Mexico, and others are going to effectively manage the security crisis unfolding in the Northern Triangle of Central America.

Trump speaks of Mexico as if it was a source of chaos and conflict that endangers the United States. It is not. But unless the president quickly comes to his senses, his policies might make for a self-fulfilling prophecy and harm hundreds of millions of Americans and Mexicans.

Photo credit: YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Dan Restrepo is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He was special assistant to the president and senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council from 2009 to 2012.

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