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Election Gives Trump a Chance to Hit the Reset Button with Mexico

Earl Anthony Wayne

"For both [Mexico and the U.S.], there is no other bilateral relationship that touches the daily lives of citizens more than the issues involving each other, for good and for bad," writes Earl Anthony Wayne.

Election Gives Trump a Chance to Hit the Reset Button with Mexico

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is slated to visit Mexico Thursday to follow up the positive initial phone call between Mexico’s president-elect, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), and President Trump the day after AMLO and his allies swept to an impressive victory in Mexico’s July 1 elections. 

White House advisor Jared Kushner, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen will also reportedly now join Secretary Pompeo in Mexico City.

AMLO announced he would invite President Trump to his inauguration and has named a future foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, with more U.S. experience than he has.


AMLO also reportedly designated an experienced Mexican diplomat as future ambassador to the U.S. and well-regarded lead trade negotiator to join Mexico’s North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) team. 

These developments highlight the significance of U.S.-Mexico relations for both countries. Both seem to recognize that Mexico’s election and political transition provide an opportunity to reset U.S.-Mexico relations, as Lopez Obrador prepares for his six-year presidential term beginning Dec. 1.

To succeed, both parties need to regularize respectful ways to work through divisive issues and carve out common ground. 

Many speculate that AMLO may be a “pugnacious counterpart” to President Trump. He and his allies have been sharply critical of U.S. words and actions. Nevertheless, they also make clear that they seek good relations of “mutual respect” with their northern neighbor.

For both countries, there is no other bilateral relationship that touches the daily lives of citizens more than the issues involving each other, for good and for bad.

AMLO is riding to power on an enormous popular vote for change. He and his team now need to prepare specific proposals to address insecurity, corruption, inequality and poverty.

The new team must get ready to govern, knowing that they have not previously done so nationally and that their Morena party, only founded in 2014, has never managed a congressional majority or the new state and local positions now held. The popular expectations are high and Mexico’s challenges daunting. 

AMLO’s focus is Mexico-centric. His history and political orientation are very different from that of President Trump. Yet, he and his team recognize that the Mexico and the U.S. are deeply intertwined by geography, history, culture, economics and politics.

For both countries, there is no other bilateral relationship that touches the daily lives of citizens more than the issues involving each other, for good and for bad.

Some 80 percent of Mexico’s exports head to the U.S., while Mexico is the United States' second-largest export market in the world. The two countries trade a million dollars a minute, supporting millions of jobs in both countries, and they manage a million legal border crossings each day.

Millions of “undocumented” Mexicans live in the U.S. and tens of thousands of Central American migrants flee toward Mexico and the U.S. each month. Illicit drugs flow north to U.S. consumers, and $20-30 billion a year in illegal drug profits fuel soaring violence in Mexico. 

These factors provide strong incentives for the two governments to hammer out a modus vivendi. It will take patience, discipline, hard work and good will to produce a shared way ahead, however, and to manage the complex set of issues like immigration that raise passions in both countries.

Sovereignty, respect, pride and emotion rise to the surface quickly. Secretary Pompeo’s visit can help define a way ahead with current and incoming Mexican officials.

Efforts to agree on a NAFTA have been at loggerheads over such issues as readjusting the “rules of origin” for autos, a “sunset clause” for the treaty and dispute settlement provisions.

The talks were further complicated when the U.S. put tariffs on steel and aluminum from Canada and Mexico and both countries retaliated. President Trump talks about breaking the treaty into two bilateral agreements, which Mexico and Canada have resisted.

AMLO and his advisors support concluding the NAFTA agreement and attracting U.S. and other investment to help generate jobs in Mexico, as part of the long-term solution to crime and migration. His advisors plan to work with current Mexican negotiators, ideally to reach agreements before AMLO takes office.

Agreement would boost the NAFTA economies and be a good start for the six-year AMLO presidency. Mexico, the U.S. and Canada will need to show additional flexibility and creativity, however. AMLO will not want to begin his tenure without an agreement that he can convincingly present as a “win” for Mexico, for example. 

The flow of migrants northward, especially from Central America, and related border management is very sensitive.   Net migration from Mexico to the U.S. has been shrinking for about a decade. Migration from Central America northward, however, has grown substantially since 2013-14.

Mexicans have been particularly stung by U.S. criticism of Mexico and officials offended with accusations that they do nothing to help on migration: They have sent over 500,000 Central Americans back home in recent years. Mexicans are also very critical of recent U.S. treatment of migrant families.

AMLO criticized the current Mexican government for doing America’s “dirty work.” Yet, he has also proposed a new version of the “Alliance for Progress” to address migration and development issues, and his designated public security minister talks about creating a new border patrol to help deal with migration.

These ideas could help recalibrate and reinitiate U.S.-Mexican cooperation to address migrants heading northward and work with Central American governments on the causes of migration. AMLO mentioned the concept of an agreement to promote prosperity and reduce migration in his phone call with President Trump. 

Closely related is cooperation U.S.-Mexico border cooperation. Over the past decade, the U.S. and Mexico took major steps to transform border management into a much more cooperative effort, making trade more efficient and handling security threats further away from the actual border, thus reducing risks for the U.S.  

Also critical is countering the transnational criminal groups that supply drugs to the U.S. and fuel violence and corruption in Mexico.

That cooperation took an important step forward in 2017 when U.S. and Mexican cabinet officials agreed to a strategy for targeting the entire chain of drug production, transportation and finances of a transnational criminal organization.

However, with hostile atmosphere that developed, Mexican officials became increasingly hesitant to take new steps. With the change of government in Mexico, there is an opportunity to redesign cooperation to help Mexican communities harmed by criminal violence, which were meant to be part of U.S.-Mexico collaboration.

There is much good that can be done to shape better U.S.-Mexico relationship during the coming months, but it will demand careful, dedicated work by both sides. 

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.  This article was originally published on The Hill. 

About the Author

Earl Anthony Wayne

Earl Anthony Wayne

Public Policy Fellow;
Former Career Ambassador to Afghanistan, Argentina, and Mexico; Distinguished Diplomat in Residence, School of International Service, American University
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Mexico Institute

The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute.   Read more