The Mexican Standoff

Trump and the Art of the Workaround

So far from God, so close to Trump: Peña Nieto and Trump in Mexico City, August 2016. Henry Romero / Reuters

For most of the twentieth century, Mexico and the United States were distant neighbors. Obliviousness and neglect from the north was met with resentment and, at times, outright hostility from the south, leaving the two countries diplomatically detached. Yet as the twenty-first century approached, this wariness began to fade, replaced by cooperation and even something resembling friendship. The détente began in the early 1990s, when Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and U.S. President George H. W. Bush developed a shared economic vision, culminating in the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the largest free-trade agreement in the world and the first to include countries with mature economies (the United States and Canada) and a country with a still emerging economy (Mexico). Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, embraced the rapprochement, shepherding NAFTA through Congress and later rescuing Mexico from a financial crisis. And although Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, failed in his attempt at comprehensive immigration reform, he succeeded in working with his Mexican counterparts, Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón, to transform the U.S.-Mexican security relationship for the better. President Barack Obama reaffirmed and expanded bilateral cooperation by deepening the two countries’ economic integration and supporting Mexico’s efforts to establish the rule of law and improve the security of its citizens.

During the past 25 years, connections between the two countries have proliferated at the state and local levels as well. Governors have set up trade offices and sponsored repeated commercial visits. Law enforcement officers have trained together and conducted joint operations. Universities have initiated cross-border research projects and exchanges. Mayors have embraced sister cities and held joint events and conferences; San Diego and Tijuana even explored a shared bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics. 

But that quarter century of partnership is now faltering, thanks to U.S. President Donald Trump’s overt hostility to Mexico and Mexicans. The invective began during Trump’s campaign, during which he called NAFTA “the worst trade deal

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