Reprinted with permission from the Truman National Security Project.
Like so many previously held assumptions, the assumed alliance and cooperation between the United States and Mexico is being tested, if not toppled. Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto is confronted with an unapologetic Trump ready to tear up the 23-year old North America Trade Agreement (NAFTA), deport millions of illegal Mexican immigrants, and build his wall. Indeed, Mexico faces a quandary in how to deal with a new U.S. President who intends to make good on his campaign promises.
Until recently, Peña Nieto has approached Trump with the old sense of cooperation, having received Trump for a meeting and photo-op in Mexico last August (despite the very obvious negative impact on his approval ratings at home) and stating that he seeks dialogue with Trump. He even listed his own goals for talks with Trump in Washington, including the humane treatment of Mexican migrants, preservation of free trade in North America, and building bridges not walls—all of which diverge dramatically from Trump’s agenda. But then Peña Nieto canceled his Washington visit in an extraordinary, high stakes move that publicly pits himself against Trump.
For his part, Trump has approached Mexico as a country he can steamroll. His campaign preyed on the prejudices and economic maladies of rural and Rust Belt Americans, who wanted a reason to explain why their America no longer feels like it’s theirs and an enemy to blame for the loss of jobs—no matter that many more American jobs have been lost to robots rather than to Mexico. But Trump believes he can mitigate their pain by targeting others, and in this case, Mexico has served as his piñata. He continues to claim Mexico will pay for the wall, without recognizing that Mexico poses multiple layers of economic and security challenges that extend far beyond any wall he could possibly build.
Tearing up NAFTA wholesale and imposing a 20% tariff on Mexican imports to pay for the wall would be disastrous for both the U.S. and Mexican economies. The United States trades approximately $1 trillion a year with Mexico and Canada, and the interconnectedness of the three economies since the implementation of NAFTA cannot be overstated. It is also worth noting that Canada and Mexico are the top two export destinations for the United States, and according to the U.S. Trade Representative, American exports to Mexico account for approximately $236 billion a year. If NAFTA is torn up, U.S. companies would lose out alongside the Mexican and Canadian companies.
Meanwhile, deporting millions of Mexican immigrants who have been living and working in the United States for years—for some of them, their whole life—would be logistically impossible, cost prohibitive, and inhumane. The cause and effect relationship of jobs and immigration must be highlighted as well: Trump cannot expect to dismantle NAFTA without causing a dramatic impact on the Mexican economy and security, and thus increasing the likelihood for a massive surge in illegal migration to the United States in the coming years.
Building a wall along the 2,000-mile border is equally untenable and unnecessary, particularly as many portions of the border cut through inaccessible terrain. Trump has already signed an Executive Order to begin construction on the wall, but it is also a poor use of funds that could go toward more modern and enhanced technologies for border protection, training and equipment for additional border patrol guards on both sides, and better intelligence capabilities. These advancements can more successfully thwart not just the illegal flow of migrants across the border, but also the illegal flow of drugs, weapons, and money.
All of these issues are roiling Mexico’s politics as well as its economy. Mexico has already endured the Trump effect with the fall in the peso, and with presidential elections in Mexico slated for 2018, there will be much ado about Peña Nieto and the ruling Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party’s handling of Trump and the economy. No doubt, a multitude of candidates will emerge in 2017 to tap into Mexican nationalism, leaving the possibility that an extreme left-wing candidate like Andrés Manuel López Obrador will gain widespread support.
We need to bring U.S.-Mexican relations back from the brink. The best case scenario moving forward would be a tough resolve to preserve and protect U.S.-Mexican relations and negotiate a way forward on trade, immigration, and border security, all without laying us bare to a major economic, political, and security crisis in Mexico. Modernizing and improving certain terms of the trade agreement, deporting those illegal immigrants who have committed criminal offenses, and enhancing the security technologies, mechanisms, and personnel along the border that both countries could work toward would be a win-win for both Trump and Peña Nieto. But more importantly, it would be a win-win for both the United States and Mexico.
Amanda Mattingly is a Senior Director at The Arkin Group and a Truman National Security Fellow. She previously served as a foreign affairs officer at the State Department.
IMAGE: U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference at the Los Pinos residence in Mexico City, Mexico, August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Henry Romero