MEXICO CITY — Faced with new threats from the United States, President Enrique Peña Nieto and other top Mexican officials outlined Monday a set of foreign policy goals that prioritize defending the country’s “national interests” while also starting negotiations with President Trump.
They described the policy as one that remains devoted to free trade within North America and beyond, as well as to the defense of the rights of Mexicans at home and in the United States.
“It’s evident that the United States has a new vision for its foreign policy,” Peña Nieto told an audience at the presidential palace Monday. “Given this reality, Mexico is obligated to take actions to defend its national interests. It’s clear that we have to initiate a negotiation.”
“Mexico does not believe in walls,” added Peña Nieto, who plans to visit Trump in Washington on Jan. 31 to talk about the North American Free Trade Agreement and other issues. “Mexico believes in bridges.”
The speeches showed again how much Trump has rattled Mexican authorities and forced them to rethink their strategy toward their most important trading partner and largest neighbor. Many of Trump’s proposals — from taxing imports from Mexico to deporting millions of undocumented Mexicans to building a wall along the border — run counter to Mexico’s interests.
In his speech, Peña Nieto, whose approval ratings have fallen to close to single digits amid Trump’s rise and a struggling economy, outlined priorities that include diversifying Mexico’s economic and political ties with nations around the world, rather than relying so heavily on the United States. He also said that any deportation effort by Trump should be “orderly and coordinated” with Mexico and that remittances from Mexicans in the United States should not be disrupted.
Peña Nieto has been criticized here for not taking a firmer stance against some of Trump’s proposals. Beyond insisting that Mexico will not pay for the border wall, Peña Nieto has gone out of his way to be polite to Trump and to display optimism about future relations. He has stressed negotiations, rather than confronting Trump with an aggressive stance or rolling over in the face of his demands.
“Neither of these postures is a solution: not confrontation, nor submission,” he said Thursday. “The solution is dialogue and negotiation.”
Mexican officials are determined to make the case to Trump that Mexico performs a valuable service to the U.S. economy. Luis Videgaray, who recently took over as foreign minister to lead talks with the Trump administration, rattled off statistics intended to show how American states rely on Mexican investment. He said that trade with Mexico provides 566,000 jobs in California and 380,000 in Texas.
“In the states that were crucial to the political outcome in November 2016, exports from the United States to Mexico played a fundamental role,” he said.
Some political observers were not optimistic about Peña Nieto’s chances of swaying Trump’s point of view toward Mexico.
“It will be a very difficult negotiation,” said Raúl Benítez Manaut, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “Mexico right now has few favorable cards to play. We have a divided country, an economy in crisis. The Mexican government will have to deploy extraordinarily able negotiators.”
Alfredo Coutiño, director for Latin America at Moody’s Analytics, said Mexico should begin working on a backup plan in case respectful discussion does not work. Shifting trade to other countries is a process that takes years, he said, and Trump could forge ahead with his plans despite pleas from Mexico.
“So Mexico is voting for dialogue and negotiation,” Coutiño said. “And if that doesn't work? What next?”
Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.