The Real Problem With ‘Mexico’s Trump’

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Mexico goes to the polls this Sunday to choose its next president. Barring a last-minute surprise, the winner will be Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a populist candidate who has sometimes styled himself as a foil to Donald Trump.

Among the losers may be a bipartisan, multi-decade success story: steadily improving relations between Mexico and the U.S.

Though Americans often forget it, the relationship between Mexico and the U.S. is rooted in rivalry. “Poor Mexico,” the longtime dictator Porfirio Díaz once reportedly remarked. “So far from God, so close to the United States.”

During the Mexican-American War, the U.S. exploited a border dispute to conquer and annex most of northern Mexico. During the Mexican revolution in the early 20th century, American troops seized the port city of Veracruz and invaded northern Mexico in response to Pancho Villa’s raids on U.S. territory.

Little surprise that for many Mexicans, the U.S. was a greedy, aggressive power that repeatedly humiliated its weaker neighbor. For many Americans, Mexico was a failed state that produced instability and violence.

Throughout much of the 20th century, relations were hot and cold. Mexico fought with the allies during World War II and sometimes helped the CIA by monitoring Latin American communists and Castro’s Cuba during the Cold War. Yet the Mexican government also nationalized foreign-owned oil companies in 1938, and Mexican diplomats frequently put their country at the forefront of opposition to U.S. policies in the United Nations and other forums. The authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party, which monopolized domestic politics for decades, relied on nationalism — often of an anti-U.S. character — as a pillar of its legitimacy.

Beginning in the 1980s, however, the relationship began a fundamental change. Mexico’s economic liberalization made possible the establishment of a more fluid and cooperative economies ties, formalized by the signing of Nafta in 1992. Political liberalization in Mexico brought to power a new generation of PRI leaders — technocrats, often educated in the U.S., who saw closer relations with Washington as a way of modernizing their own country.

Then came the rise of an authentically democratic system and two conservative, opposition administrations — under Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party — that steadily expanded the relationship. From Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, Democratic and Republican presidents had the good sense to encourage these trends.

Even the darkest clouds have had silver linings in this regard. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks fostered enhanced cooperation on counterterrorism and border security. In the face of horrific violence by Mexico’s drug cartels, strong political leadership, mostly by Calderón and George W. Bush, led to a whole new level of coordination between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement agencies and, more quietly, between the defense establishments of the two countries.

In addition, few Americans are likely aware of how much Mexico has helped the U.S. deal with the challenge of illegal immigration. Despite President Trump’s claim that Mexico “is doing very little, if not nothing,” Mexico has significantly strengthened enforcement on its own southern order — a gateway to the north for Central American immigrants — and cooperated with American authorities in processing deportees.

U.S.-Mexico relations could still be testy, as one would expect from two neighbors that share a long border and some unpleasant history. But the momentum was unmistakable.

That momentum is in jeopardy today, due to political developments on both sides of the border. Donald Trump bears most of the blame: his demonization of immigrants, racist comments about Mexicans and Latinos, advocacy of building a “big, beautiful wall” on the southern border, family-separation policy, and threats to tear up Nafta have not made bilateral cooperation a politically popular position in Mexico.

According to polling by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, America’s favorability rating among Mexicans has plunged from 66 percent to 30 percent since 2015, while unfavorable views have skyrocketed from 29 percent to 65 percent.

The Mexican government of Enrique Peña Nieto has tried to keep the relationship on an even keel by conciliating rather than confronting Trump. This approach, however, has been a public relations disaster for the already unpopular Peña Nieto from the moment he welcomed candidate Trump to Mexico City in 2016. And as Trump reawakens the anti-American strain in Mexican nationalism, Mexico is poised to elect a president who can give as good as he gets.  

This is not to say that López Obrador is as politically radical or congenitally anti-American as his critics sometimes claim. AMLO, as he is known, is probably not a new version of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez who will lead Mexico into dictatorship; he is not an unrepentant anti-American ideologue in the mold of the Castro brothers. (Nor, contrary to many U.S. pundits and politicians, does he owe his likely victory solely or even principally to anti-Trump sentiment.)

But he is a throwback to an earlier era in Mexican politics, in that he mixes condemnations of a corrupt elite and populist calls for social justice, on the one hand, with illiberal inclinations, an aversion to transparency, and desires for a more empowered presidency on the other.

Much of this agenda is straight out of the old PRI playbook, which López Obrador learned when he was a member of that party. So is his support for corrupt unions and economic protectionism. If Trump wants to return America to the 1950s, AMLO wants to take Mexico back to the 1970s.

Trump may therefore recognize a kindred spirit south of the border. Yet one doubts that the pairing will be good for U.S.-Mexico affairs. López Obrador has pledged to seek a positive relationship, but he has also played the nationalism card by promising to put Trump “in his place,” to drive a hard bargain on Nafta renegotiation, and to haul America before the U.N. should the president build his wall.

He has argued that Mexico should become more self-sufficient in foodstuffs and gasoline, currently major imports from the U.S., and outlined a more “independent” position on security cooperation. His advisers have described his vision as a “Mexico First” agenda that seems likely to clash with Trump’s “America First” ethos. And given that populists perpetually need enemies, one can hardly rule out the possibility that he will use the U.S. as a political whipping boy, just as Trump has done with Mexico.

In short, whereas much of the recent progress in U.S.-Mexico relations has been driven by strong presidential support on both sides, that impetus will now be lacking on both sides. The odds of a breakdown of the Nafta talks will therefore tick upward once López Obrador takes office; and the Mexican government may demand greater American concessions in return for continued cooperation on drug trafficking, migration and other security issues.

The upshot may or may not be an outright reversal of U.S.-Mexican cooperation — here López Obrador’s nationalism will clash with his understanding of just how important the U.S. is to Mexico. But it could stall several decades of progress in one of America’s most important foreign relationships. 

That would be a shame. Friendly relations with neighbors are a blessing, as those countries that are not fortunate to have such relations can attest. Upsetting those relations might suit Trump and López Obrador politically, at least in the short-term; it would serve neither of their countries’ long-term interests.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.