USA Foreign Policy

Trump reawakens Mexican fears of Yankee aggression

Understanding others

The very public falling-out between the two neighbors is a likely harbinger of the pushback Trump can expect from foreign leaders as he implements his 'America First' agenda.

A man stops to read headlines in Mexico City Thursday, many featuring President Trump's insistence that Mexico foot the bill for a US border wall.
Rebecca Blackwell/AP | Caption

“Poor Mexico,” lamented a Mexican president more than a century ago, “so far from God and so close to the United States.”

That saying, encapsulating Mexican misgivings about its neighbor, lost much of its saliency over the last quarter century, as Mexico and the US forged closer ties and more mature relations under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Mexico has transitioned to a middle-income country thanks in part to growing economic integration with the US, although its economy has sputtered in recent years. Mexico also has deepened security cooperation with the US in ways that would have been impossible just a few years ago.

Then came President Trump and his border wall – and to top it off, Mr. Trump’s insistence that Mexico pay for the multibillion-dollar wall project. Suddenly, all the dormant sentiments Mexico held about the nature and arrogance of its northern neighbor came roaring back.

On Thursday, relations between the two countries were set back, perhaps decades, when Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto abruptly canceled a scheduled visit to the White House next week – after Trump goaded him in a tweet to either accept to pay for the wall or not to bother traveling to Washington.

“If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting,” Trump tweeted Thursday morning.

Done. Mr. Peña Nieto, after having issued a taped message the night before saying he intended to keep his Oval Office appointment despite the fact that “Mexico does not believe in walls,” did an about-face Thursday and canceled his visit.

The high-level spat between two neighbors threatens to send relations back to the bad old days of mutual grievances and suspicions. At the same time, the brouhaha is sending ripples through Latin America and planting concerns that Trump’s arrival portends an era of deteriorating relations between the US and the hemisphere. On Friday, the White House announced that the two leaders had a "productive and constructive" phone conversation on bilateral relations, which Trump dubbed a "very, very friendly call." [Editor's note: This paragraph was updated with news of the hour-long phone call.]

The jarring and very public falling-out between Peña Nieto and Trump, just days into the latter’s presidency, is very likely a harbinger of the pushback Trump can expect from other national leaders as he implements his  “America First” agenda, some international relations analysts and diplomatic experts say.

Return to Monroe Doctrine

“This is the lowest point in US-Mexico relations in the last 20 years by far,” says Bill Richardson, former US ambassador to the United Nations and former governor of a border state, New Mexico. “But it’s not just Mexico, it’s the return to the Monroe Doctrine and diplomacy by threats and force,” he adds. “It’s not an approach that will sit well with any of our neighbors.”

Indeed the Trump method and pursuit of an “America First” policy is already putting off a number of US allies and partners, says former Governor Richardson, a Democrat.

“I’m flabbergasted by President Trump’s practice of tweeting and bullying our closest friends,” he says. “As a start, we’ve already upset 11 other countries by unilaterally cancelling TPP [the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement]. We’re starting off in a very tense situation with China.”

But it’s the sudden deterioration in relations with Mexico – the US’s third-largest trading partner after Canada and China – that experts find most worrisome. 

Trump is scheduled to greet British Prime Minister Teresa May at the White House Friday, with the two leaders expected to discuss Britain’s exit from the European Union, a post-Brexit US-Britain free-trade deal, NATO, and the effort to defeat ISIS. 

All important, Richardson says, but he emphasizes that in terms of trade, economic growth, and security, the US-Mexico relationship is more critical.

“Our trading relationship with Mexico is five times bigger than with Great Britain,” he says. “When we alienate Mexico we’re talking about our second-largest [market for US exports]. Mexico buys more American goods than Japan, Germany, South Korea, and Great Britain – combined.”

In announcing the cancellation of his trip, Peña Nieto said he remained hopeful for a return to good relations with the US and progress on “agreements that benefit both nations.”

Throwback to 20th century

At the White House, press secretary Sean Spicer said the two countries would “keep the lines of communication open” and “look for a date to schedule something in the future.”

But Mr. Spicer then dropped another bomb in the US-Mexico conflict, announcing that Trump is considering a 20-percent tax on imports from Mexico as a means of forcing the southern neighbor to at last indirectly pay for the wall. He later said the import tax was only one option as part of a larger tax reform.

One former Mexican president, Vicente Fox, unloaded on Trump Thursday and lamented that the new US president was resurrecting bygone notions of American arrogance among Mexicans.

Mr. Fox developed a strong working relationship with President George W. Bush that allowed the two countries to get beyond old fears of US invasion and dominance to implement new security and public safety cooperation. But Fox told the Washington Post that Mexico rejects Trump and the throwback to painful times that he represents for Mexicans.

“We don’t want the ugly American, which Trump represents; that imperial gringo that used to invade our country, that used to send the Marines, that used to put and take away presidents most everywhere in the world,” Fox told the Post. “That happened in the 20th century and this is what this guy is threatening us with.”

Bilateral dust-up or deeper falling out?

Some US officials including members of Congress, say they expect the bilateral dust-up to blow over quickly. “I think it’ll be fine,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin told journalists at the Republican retreat in Philadelphia Thursday.

But others are lamenting the sudden falling-out between the US and Mexico and imploring the new president that it not be allowed to fester – for security considerations as well as economic reasons.

“The relationship between the United State and Mexico is extremely important to all Americans on a daily basis,” said US Rep. Eliot Engel (D) of New York in a statement. Noting that last week’s extradition of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán to New York “never would have been possible without a robust US-Mexico relationship,” Congressman Engel said he “urged” Trump to “reconsider recent actions so that the US-Mexico relationship can get back on track.”

While it is true that the US economy dwarfs Mexico’s – and the US has a $60 billion trade deficit with Mexico, as Trump points out – the fact remains that the two economies are deeply intertwined, with Mexico weighing in as the US’s second-largest export market (after Canada, the other NAFTA partner).

Peña Nieto had already announced the agenda he planned to take to his White House meeting, and many of the priorities he listed – modernized infrastructure, addressing Central American migration northward through Mexico, tackling border violence including arms flows from the US to Mexico – also figure on Trump’s list of priorities.

Presumably those are topics Trump would want to address with Mexico, especially since he has put border issues in the context of “national security.”

But Richardson says his experience has shown him that you can’t expect to make strides on issues of national importance with counties that you have distanced and infuriated with your actions.

“I think this president has alienated more major American allies in his first week than other presidents managed to alienate over recent decades,” Richardson says. “I can’t wait for Week 2.”