Mexico stood up to Reagan. It can stand up to Trump, too.
Jorge G. Castañeda, Mexico’s foreign minister from 2000 to 2003, is a professor at New York University.
A great debate is underway in foreign ministries, intelligence agencies and trade associations with regard to President-elect Donald Trump’s true intentions. The ongoing guessing game in many of the world’s larger capitals involves a new form of Kremlinology — reading between Trump’s tweets to discover which campaign promises he will keep and which he will forget. Perhaps it is not the most productive of activities for the new year, but it’s probably unavoidable.
All of this is especially true in Mexico. Few nations bore as much of the brunt of Trump’s campaign antics as the United States’ neighbor to the south. Few presidents were as humiliated by Trump as Enrique Peña Nieto, when the Republican candidate visited the Mexican White House, known as Los Pinos. Trump was received as a head of state by Nieto and claimed payment for his proposed wall on the Mexican border was not discussed. After returning to the United States, he then claimed that Mexico would, in fact, pay for the wall, even if “they don’t know it.” Indeed, no other country stands as much to lose as Mexico if the incoming American chief executive fulfills his promises of building a wall, carrying out mass deportations and renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Many Mexicans, including this writer, have insisted on the need for the government of Mexico, and Mexican society as a whole, to adopt a proactive, twofold stance toward Trump. First, we should acknowledge that he will do much of what he said. Maybe not the entire wall, not tomorrow, but many miles of something like it: a fence, sensors, a ditch. He will not deport 6 million Mexican nationals in America who lack proper papers, but he will expel at least as many as President Obama, and probably many more. And he will not withdraw from NAFTA overnight but will attempt to renegotiate the terms of the 1993 deal, on issues as far-ranging as wages and special tariffs. Secondly, Mexico should “just say no”: to the wall, to deportations and to reopening NAFTA, and do everything it can, using its considerable leverage in other areas — fighting the U.S. drug war (at the expense of Mexican lives) or stopping desperate Central American potential refugees from reaching the United States (in violation of their right to asylum) — to increase the cost for Trump if he persists in his anti-Mexican campaign.
That said, the more important question facing the current Mexican government, and the one taking office late in 2018, is whom it should seek to work with in resisting Trump’s offensive, both inside the United States and abroad. What type of alliances should it try to forge, and with whom?
Perhaps Mexico — and other countries — should take heed of what was done in the 1980s against President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy agenda and use that playbook. When Reagan was elected in 1980, he decided, among other things, to draw a line in the sand against the Soviet Union’s purported involvement in Central America. It soon became obvious to many governments in Latin America and Western Europe that Washington meant business in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. It would trample traditional values and principles such as respect for human rights and non-intervention in other nations’ affairs, and bypass addressing regional and international concerns in regional and international organizations.
So Mexico and its friends in the region and in Europe took up these banners and found convergences with broad sectors of American civil and political society, with the goal of achieving a peaceful solution to the Central American civil wars and putting an end to Reagan’s anti-communist and anti-Soviet crusade in the region. Liberal Democrats in Congress, the Catholic Church and the sanctuary movement, labor unions, a large part of the media, universities and foundations became these countries’ American interlocutors, instead of a U.S. administration that refused to listen. With time, Mexico and its partners — France, then Colombia, Venezuela and Panama, then Costa Rican Nobel Peace prize winner Oscar Arias — prevailed. In the interim, relations between Mexico City and Washington soured. But given the impossibility of siding with the likes of then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig and CIA director William Casey, this was the better option available. As the point men for Reagan’s Central American wars, they were so ideologically tilted and dogmatic that they literally saw a Cuban or a Sandinista under every bed.
The situation is similar today. Trump clearly opposes at least the rhetoric of free trade, free movement of people, the existence of an international legal order and organizations that uphold it, human rights and the collective defense of democracy. More important, he also probably rejects the substance of these principles.
No one doubts that Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean should attempt to negotiate in good faith with the Trump administration — as China, Western Europe and the Arab countries will. But if this proves fruitless, it might be a good idea to defend the values and principles the United States has stood for since World War II and that it is now abandoning. In Latin America, we harbor no illusions regarding U.S double standards. Still, despite these misgivings, Mexico could ally itself with similar domestic U.S. sectors as in the 1980s and similar partners abroad.
Mexico is not ideally placed for raising the banners of human rights, international law, the regional defense of democracy and the free movement of goods, capital and people. But it can pivot in this direction, as Washington distances itself from values it stood for, or at least paid lip service to. Mexico could raise its voice against racism, nativism, misogyny, homophobia, white nationalism, hate speech and other features of a future Trump team. Mexico can speak and act consistently with these values: tackling torture or disappearances at home, and in the United States, opposing counter-terrorism efforts that violate human rights, pressing for CIA torturers to be brought to justice and backing the International Criminal Court. It could proceed both inside the United States and through the myriad international arrangements it belongs to.
Mexico would thus strengthen its hand in opposing Trump on its own issues — the wall, deportations, NAFTA, the war on drugs. And it would contribute, after years of hesitation, to championing causes it should have always defended and believed in.