White House

There’s much more at stake in Trump’s blowup with Mexico than a wall

The abrupt cancellation of what was to have been Donald Trump’s second meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto puts at risk one the U.S.’s most important international relationships.

The immediate cause for the cancellation was Trump’s insistence that Mexico pay for a wall along the U.S. southern border. But a slide in U.S.-Mexico relations could affect far more than Trump’s promised barrier.

The U.S. and Mexico are partners in a variety of cross-border cooperative agreements, including a multibillion-dollar war to curb drug trafficking that at one time had U.S. intelligence officers working with Mexican authorities. Trump’s continued criticism of Mexico threatens to return U.S.-Mexico relations to the frosty state they were in the last century.

Jorge Guajardo, Mexico’s former ambassador to China, said the breach was specifically about payment for the wall. It’s not about Trump’s desire to renegotiate NAFTA, deport more people or even the wall itself. Mexicans can understand the reasoning, but Guarjardo said expecting Mexico to pay for the wall was insulting.

“It’s the stupidest idea ever,” Guarjardo said. “Everyone laughed about it. Now, all of sudden, that is what’s dictating policy and that’s what causing a rupture between countries who were friends. Will no one restore sanity to this process?”

Peña Nieto canceled next week’s visit to Washington following Trump’s executive order calling for the construction of a wall between the nations.

Trump, who said the decision was mutual, didn’t make things easier Thursday when he repeated once again that Mexico will pay for the controversial wall along the southwest border and accused the country of costing the United States $60 billion a year in trade deficits.

“Not to mention millions of jobs and thousands and thousands of factories and plants closing down all over our country,” Trump said.

It’s a much different relationship from the one past U.S. presidents have had with their Mexican counterparts. Mexican President Vicente Fox and President George W. Bush were friends from their days as governors of bordering states who shared a fondness for cowboy boots. President Barack Obama described his Mexican counterpart, President Felipe Calderon, as a friend and partner.

Mexico is arguably the most important bilateral relationship the United States has. It’s the third largest U.S. trading partner and a crucial ally in a wide range of security, migration and trade issues.

It’s also a relationship that has improved considerably over several decades. The two countries have collaborated on everything from drug trafficking to human trafficking.

NAFTA has had its flaws, but Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, said it also had led to a closer relationship between the countries.

The Obama administration, for example, tried to support the Mexican government with the 7-year-old Merida initiative, which provided, among other things, more than $2 billion to fight drug trafficking in the country. Peña Nieto also allowed for U.S. investment in Mexico’s oil industry, something that Mexican nationalists had opposed for decades.

Much of those improved relations could be put at risk, Shifter said.

“It’s an extremely serious situation. It’s unclear how bad it can get. But there is a real risk of it spiraling out of control,” Shifter said.

Talking with reporters Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said one way to pay for the wall might be to impose a 20 percent tax on all imports from Mexico.

Trump’s dogged determination that Mexico pay for the wall – one way or another – has fueled resentment among the Mexican people and propped up leftist candidates looking to win the Mexican presidency next year on a wave of anti-American sentiment and a poor economy. Inflation is rising, fed in part by a 13 percent decline in the value of the peso against the dollar since Trump’s election.

The Mexican newspaper La Prensa published a front-page picture of Trump signing the order with large headline reading: “He did it!”

Seeing an opportunity, the leftist Mexican politician Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said last week that he would tour major U.S. cities starting in February.

“Enough of being passive,” Lopez Obrador, who’s the candidate of the Moreno party, said in a statement. “We should put a national emergency plan in place to face the damage and reverse the protectionist policies of Donald Trump.”

José Cárdenas, a former senior State Department official in the Bush administration, supports Trump’s effort to tackle illegal immigration and review NAFTA. But he questions the president’s tactics. Trump’s sharper edges could probably be smoothed, he said.

“What this is is the rough and tumble world of New York real estate meets statecraft,” Cárdenas said.

Cárdenas likens Lopez Obrador to the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The threat is that Lopez Obrador takes power and returns policies to when the two countries didn’t work together to address mutual problems like drug trafficking, migration and counterterrorism threats, Cárdenas said.

The risk goes far beyond shattering NAFTA, extending to migration security cooperation; Mexico intercepts thousands of Central Americans every year, preventing them from reaching the United States.

Cárdenas said the irony was that if economic conditions continued to worsen in Mexico it could lead to even more immigrants crossing the border in search of economic opportunities.

“The irony is that if you keep pushing Mexico you’re going to get the problem that you want to solve exacerbated, exponentially,” he said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Nazi Germany had tried to draw Mexico into an alliance against the United States. In fact, the German approach to Mexico was made in 1917 during World War I. Mexico declared war on Germany and its allies in 1942 after German U-boats attacked Mexican ships in the Gulf of Mexico.

Anita Kumar contributed to this report.