In its first two months, the Trump administration arguably has spent more time with the Mexican government than with any other.
But experts are divided on whether that augurs well or poorly for U.S. relations with a nation that has been on the receiving end of President Donald Trump’s harshest and most humiliating rhetorical attacks.
“It’s better if we cooperate, talk to each other, instead of pointing fingers at each other,” Mexico’s new ambassador to the United States, Gerónimo Gutiérrez, said at a seminar in Washington last week. While the relationship is at a “critical” stage, Gutiérrez stopped short of calling it a crisis.
Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto canceled their first meeting over Trump’s plan to build a wall on the border, but in the ensuing weeks there have been at least a half-dozen Cabinet-level meetings – almost one a week – and more phone calls between U.S. and Mexican diplomats.
Whether it was at the White House or over Italian dinners at Café Milano in Washington’s Georgetown district, diplomats like Gutiérrez and Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray have spent hours with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
Gutiérrez said that never before – at least that he could remember – had Mexico been such a major focus of a new administration. That’s a good and bad thing, he said, noting that Mexico has felt neglected in the past. He said he needed to be cautious but wanted to say the early meetings had been “fruitful.” He said it was important to keep the lines of communication open, and he warned of the reviving anti-American sentiment in Mexico and anti-Mexican sentiment in the United States.
As the Chinese proverb says, ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ because we were very much front and center from the outset.
Mexican ambassador to the United States Gerónimo Gutiérrez
Mexico experts like Andrew Selee, executive vice president of the Wilson Center, a Washington research center, see a deliberate effort to prevent a crucial relationship from sliding off the rails.
“It really is a surprising level of engagement,” Selee said in an interview. “The only other country I can think of where we’re seeing this kind of visible engagement is probably Israel. I don’t see any other relationship where we’re seeing as much.”
Mexico is arguably the United States’ most important bilateral relationship. It’s a top trading partner and an ally on security and migration issues.
The concerns run the gamut: Last week, Mexican Attorney General Raúl Cervantes Andrade spent two days in Washington, meeting with his U.S. counterpart, Jeff Sessions, after Mexico helped recover New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s Super Bowl jersey, then with Homeland Security chief Kelly on collaborating to battle drug trafficking and money laundering.
That followed at least two earlier visits by Videgaray, who came to Washington earlier this month to object to a U.S. proposal to split children from their parents when families are apprehended trying to cross the border. Commerce Secretary Ross met with Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajarodo Villarreal. The two Mexican officials later had a dinner meeting with Ross and Secretary of State Tillerson.
In February, Tillerson and Kelly visited Mexico City to explain an American plan to require migrants awaiting court hearings to do so in Mexico, regardless of where they came from.
The two countries have had so many meetings that other governments are looking to Mexico for advice on dealing with the Trump administration. That’s often a question that comes up when Latin American and European diplomats travel to Mexico to meet with government officials there.
“They’re saying ‘Hey, tell me what is going on in the Trump administration. What is your experience?’ ” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington organization focused on Latin America. “They’ve been sort of the specialists on the Trump administration because they’ve had more exposure to them.”
It’s unclear how productive the meetings actually are. Each side is sizing up the other.
What is clear, though, is Mexico is the only country that combines the two issues that are pillars of Trump’s campaign: trade and immigration. As they fill jobs, officials are discussing who might be best to deal with whom in the Mexican government.
Trump has staked out a politically caustic position on Mexico. He can’t back down from building the wall without losing support among his base. And Peña Nieto is under major pressure to distance himself from the United States.
“This may be the calm before the storm,” said Shifter, who frequently talks to officials from around the hemisphere. “These issues of trade and immigration are not going away.”
While the Obama administration also had plenty of dealings with the Mexican government, that relationship was more one of continuity following the Bush administration. It was former President George W. Bush and former Mexican President Felipe Calderón who, in 2007, signed a bilateral security agreement – the Mérida Initiative – to crack down on drug trafficking. The accord set up direct channels for U.S. and Mexican officials to share intelligence and the United States agreed to provide help to Mexican authorities.
Under President Barack Obama, things were already in place. The two governments didn’t need to talk as much, Shifter said.
“Now they’re saying, ‘Is Mérida going to continue?’ ” Shifter said. “A working relationship that took three decades to develop is now in jeopardy because the politics have become so poisonous.”
It really is a surprising level of engagement. The only other country I can think of where we’re seeing this kind of visible engagement is probably Israel.
Andrew Selee, Wilson Center
But after weeks of back and forth, the temperature of the rhetoric has dropped and diplomacy looks to have taken hold.
Behind the scenes, senior members of both administrations see too much at stake to let relations spiral down. That means trying to ensure cooperation continues while finding a way to allow both presidents to save face.
Mexico is the U.S.’s third largest trading partner. The two countries collaborate on everything from drug trafficking to human trafficking. The United States has invested more than $2 billion through the Mérida initiative, and the Mexican government, after decades of hostility, is now allowing U.S. investment in its oil industry.
The extent of shared interests was on display, noted former Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarakhan, when Videgaray and Villarreal dined earlier this month with Ross and Tillerson at Café Milano, a tony destination for Washington’s movers and shakers. The restaurant was to have been the site of a planned assassination of the Saudi ambassador to the United States by the Al Quds Force, a branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The plot was broken up by U.S. authorities with the help of Mexican officials who had discovered that the Iranians had reached out to a Mexican drug cartel to arrange the killing.
Gutiérrez does see opportunities. He thinks the two countries’ relationship will be stronger once they get through this rough patch. He got several laughs recently when he half-joked to former ambassadors and business leaders about the odd feeling of being the focus of a new administration, when in the past Mexican officials have been critical of the United States for neglecting them.
“As the Chinese proverb says, ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ because we were very much front and center from the outset,” Gutiérrez said. “And that is both bad and good.”