Trump was elected in 2016 on an explicitly anti-Mexican platform. He called Mexicans “rapists” and threatened to end the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) while pledging to build an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall.” In contrast, López Obrador, as a presidential candidate, toured the United States in 2017 to express his solidarity with Mexican migrants threatened by Trump’s draconian immigration policies. The Mexican leader called Trump a “neo-fascist” and presented international human rights claims against the White House both in the United Nations and at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Once López Obrador was elected president in 2018, the expectation was that the two heads of state would inevitably collide, ruining a long history of constructive bilateral collaboration. Surprisingly, Trump and the Mexican president have in fact gotten along exceptionally well.
López Obrador made the first move. The Mexican leader could have easily used his political capital — after a landslide victory — to rally the masses against the bully in Washington. Instead, he immediately put pen to paper and wrote a letter to Trump in which he proposed “a new stage in the relationship between Mexico and the United States based on mutual respect and the identification of areas of understanding and common interests.”
Trump followed suit. Instead of railing against a new “radical leftist” president south of the border, he called the Mexican leader to congratulate him warmly on election day. Trump then immediately sent a high-level delegation to meet with López Obrador´s transition team in Mexico City and quickly got to work to continue bilateral trade negotiations.
Trump has of course continued to insult Mexicans and immigrants while applying pressure on the Mexican government to control the northern flow of migrants. But the president has not taken a single action against the López Obrador administration or violated Mexican sovereignty — not a small feat given the White House’s tendency toward neo-imperialist policies, such as with Venezuela and Iran, for instance.
The biggest risk to the bilateral relationship was the possible end of free trade. Trump promised time and again to end NAFTA, calling it a “job-killing failure.” And López Obrador, and the Mexican left in general, had for decades blamed NAFTA for ruining the countryside and fracturing national industrial policy.
Mexico´s previous president, Enrique Peña Nieto, salvaged negotiations in 2017 by succumbing to Washington’s whims. He was desperate to avoid the collapse of the economy on the eve of the 2018 elections, since this would have ruined any possibility of his party keeping the presidency. But once López Obrador won, the alarms sounded, since it was not clear how Trump would respond to a stronger president interested in defending his country’s sovereignty.
Miraculously, the two presidents quickly cut a deal, and the new United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA) was born. Both Trump and López Obrador put aside ideology for a moment and worked together to hammer out a new version of an agreement that enables the increasingly integrated North American economy to grow and prosper.
Mexico is the United States’ third most important trading partner and the United States is Mexico´s first — $670 billion in goods of services cross the border each year. Neither country could afford to simply end NAFTA with nothing to replace it. Both sides therefore compromised on key issues, Mexico on domestic content of auto manufacturing, and the United States on Mexican oil sovereignty, all in the interest of regional development.
If NAFTA had not been replaced with the USMCA, the prospects for an economic recovery after the covid-19 pandemic would be even more dire. If Trump and López Obrador had fallen into the temptation of Twitter fights, political grandstanding and competitive one-upmanship, both the United States and Mexican economies would be on the brink.
Fortunately, reason and long-term self-interest have prevailed.
López Obrador chose Washington for his first foreign visit since being elected two years ago as a testament to the deep economic and cultural ties that unite the two nations. Fears that Trump will use the historic meeting to boost his reelection campaign or humiliate the Mexican president are misplaced. They underestimate the dignity and the political savvy of López Obrador, who will insist on being treated as an equal and will not hesitate to defend the rights and interests of Mexicans on both sides of the Rio Grande.
The stark contrast between the politics and ideology of the two leaders only highlights the importance of the summit. Despite the forces pulling the two countries apart, our mutual bonds are even stronger.
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