The U.S.-Mexico relationship is dangerously on the edge

Editor's note:

Relations between the United States and Mexico have been thrown into a tailspin in the wake of proposals from Washington to build an enhanced border wall and re-negotiate NAFTA, writes Arturo Sarukhan, who argues that neither country would benefit from a downturn. This post originally appeared in The Washington Post.

Over the past two decades, Mexico and the United States—once distant neighbors—have profoundly transformed their relationship. Driven first by the huge socioeconomic convergence triggered by the North American Free Trade Agreement, and then by the growing and more assertive security and intelligence cooperation that arose out of the imperatives of a post-9/11 world, both countries have built a strategic and forward-looking partnership predicated on shared responsibility and on the premise that if one nation succeeded, the other one would, too.

This does not mean that everything since has been peachy. A stark asymmetry of power will always persist between both countries. The past two decades of constructive and maturing relations have undoubtedly been punctuated by occasional moments of disagreement and mistakes committed by both capitals. Nonetheless, a dramatic shift occurred, both in substance and in tone. Successive governments of different political stripes on either side of the border came to comprehend that our two nations played a unique role for each other’s well-being that fed into the public narrative regarding the relationship. Octavio Paz, one of Mexico’s Nobel laureates, once wrote that Mexican and Americans had a hard time understanding one another because Americans didn’t know how to listen and Mexicans didn’t know how to speak up. The changes wrought in the relationship transformed the dynamics in that conversation, with Americans tuning in and Mexicans learning how to engage their partner to the north.

Dangerously and sadly—particularly for someone such as myself who has spent a lifetime seeking to deepen and widen U.S.-Mexico ties—the relationship is today on a knife’s edge. Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, “alternative facts” regarding trade with Mexico or the dynamics along our common border along with a toxic anti-Mexican narrative—potentially changing the accepted rules of engagement in U.S. political discourse and public policy toward its southern partner—have seriously damaged perceptions on both sides of the Rio Grande, inflaming passions and propelling jingoism and unhelpful rhetoric.

But it took only one week of bilateral engagement between the new U.S. administration and Mexico to throw the relationship into a tailspin. An ambush of Mexican cabinet officials in Washington for initial conversations with senior White House staff, coupled with a Sinatra Doctrine/”my way or the highway” approach by President Trump toward a partner and ally, has jeopardized a mutually beneficial relationship and opened a profound diplomatic rift.

President Enrique Peña Nieto’s cancellation of his trip to initiate talks with Trump was not only unavoidable; it was right. There was no upside to coming, politically or substantively. The Mexican government, as stated, wants to link all issues of the bilateral agenda and put them on the table, while the Trump administration seeks to renegotiate NAFTA, build a wall and initiate deportations of unauthorized immigrants. But in any case, the United States, currently with only a handful of Cabinet officials confirmed and with weeks—if not months—to go before it can field the undersecretaries and assistant secretaries that manage the relationship with Mexico day to day, would not have been able to engage with Peña Nieto on a full-government approach, instead of just the issues Trump would like to address.

While Trump focuses on trade deficits (and by the way, the trade deficit with Mexico represents solely 8 percent of the total U.S. trade deficit), he’s ignoring the $236 billion in goods that the United States exported to Mexico in 2015, second only to Canada. It’s too easy to view industrializing Mexico as simply a competitor and a threat to the U.S. economy. Mexico’s strength is a boon for U.S. consumers and for U.S. productivity, thanks to our joint supply chain and production platforms. Today we trade $1.6 billion a day in both directions—out of every dollar of Mexican exports, 40 cents are of U.S. inputs. Levying tariffs on Mexican imports would therefore be an “own goal” (in soccer parlance) vs. the United States, given the nearly 5 million U.S. jobs that depend on trade with Mexico—and the 28 states in the United States that have Mexico as their first or second export market.

Mexico is not the enemy. And neither should it be taken for granted or simply be an afterthought for U.S. national security and foreign policy interests. Trump, despite his evident disdain for Mexico, cannot press Control-Alt-Delete and dispense with a nation on his border. If you approach a relationship as complex as ours—which has so many moving parts and which profoundly affects so many facets of U.S. public policy and interests—with a chainsaw, as Trump has done, you are bound to cut off your own foot.

Mexico is certainly no military power and does not possess nuclear weapons, nor cannot it threaten or challenge Washington’s core interests. But it is not toothless, either. It can impose compensatory tariffs (as we did in 2009 to ensure U.S. compliance regarding the access of Mexican trucks). Moreover, Mexico deepened intelligence and counter-terrorism cooperation with the United States after the heinous terrorist attacks of 2001, convinced that we needed to enhance North American common domain awareness, and that by having Washington’s back, we would continue to foster a vision of two neighbors and partners intent on building a paradigm of common prosperity and common security.

Neither of our two nations would benefit if Mexico decided to ratchet back our engagement on a whole series of fronts—counter-narcotics; transmigration flows; developing a paradigm for common energy security, efficiency and independence for North America; or water resources on the border—and decouple our strategic interests, seeking out other powers.

Trump does not like to lose. But the United States will not be “great again” if it scuppers the relationship with Mexico, instead of finding common ground for soft landings across the arc of our common agenda. The United States will lose as well as Mexico, to the detriment of U.S. geo-strategic interests. Mexico and the United States have done—and can continue to do—great things together. But the one thing we won’t do together is build a wall.