Before their scheduled sit-down for Wednesday became official, President Enrique Peña Nieto and Donald Trump made cautious overtures in recent weeks, signaling they would each be open to a pre-election meeting. Scoffed at by most of the punditry, the meeting is a wise move for both leaders.
Presidential campaign forays into foreign policy are notoriously risky, but the potential upsides for Trump to meet with Peña Nieto proved compelling enough for the GOP nominee to make it happen.
The Chance to Cast a Presidential Persona
For Trump, whom Peña Nieto has previously compared to fascist dictators, it will reaffirm his willingness to sit down at the table with everyone — even those who have spoken ill of him or America. A sit down with the Mexican president will highlight his calling card as a dealmaker and a serious negotiator genuinely interested in building a strong, yet equitable, relationship with America’s neighbor to the south.
The status quo is bad for both sides and Peña Nieto should see the opportunity to lock in key Mexican interests into an American push for border security.
Trump’s outreach to African-American voters in the nation’s crumbling inner cities is an already powerful testament to the candidate’s willingness to try to change minds against steep odds. The Peña Nieto summit will further cast Trump as a leader willing to face headwinds to bring about greater unity. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans alike could give the GOP nominee a second look after a strong show of respect for the nation of Mexico.
There is also the chance for all Americans to see Trump as their president. For a world leader, particularly one whose nation has such important economic and human ties to the United States, to want to meet Trump is a testament to his seriousness. A serious, substantive, and respectful meeting with Peña Nieto, followed by a joint statement on the merits of their discussion, will provide a potentially crucial moment for Trump to reassure skeptical undecided voters of his presidential temperament.
Of course, the meeting will not be without risk.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney set off on a foreign trip in July 2012 to bolster his credibility on the world stage. Things went wrong almost immediately ahead of the GOP nominee’s first stop in the U.K.
Discussing his imminent trip to Great Britain, Romney appeared to critique the readiness of London and the British government to host the 2012 Olympic Games. The comments earned a swift rebuke from Prime Minister David Cameron, London Mayor Boris Johnson, and others.
The Olympic gaffe set off Romney’s entire foreign jaunt on the wrong foot. After other gaffes, the mockery of Mitt became so bad many in the British press began referring to the 2012 GOP nominee as “Romneyshambles.”
Trump is not known for being particularly less gaffe-prone than Romney — and the risk of a potentially embarrassing moment will certainly be there for the current GOP nominee.
The mainstream media will be ravenous to paint such a meeting in the worst possible light. Trump will undoubtedly face tough questions in Mexico, and it would be absolutely vital that he maintain his composure in front of a hostile press corps.
There would also be the risk that protesters could overshadow the meeting. Liberal activist groups like La Raza will be unlikely to let a Trump-Peña Nieto meeting pass without trying to disrupt it.
Peña Nieto, of course, could leave the meeting less impressed with Trump than he was before.
But as Trump seeks new ways to tighten the national contest and surpass Clinton, the opportunity should outweigh the risk.
Opening a Dialogue to Benefit Both Countries
Donald Trump could well become the next president of the United States and it would be wise for Mexico to ensure it has a strong relationship with whoever comes to occupy the White House.
Democrats have increasingly tried to box Mexican-Americans into a reliable, politicized demographic. In that effort, they have sought to cast Republicans as antagonists to the interests and well-being of the Mexican people.
It would be a huge mistake, from a diplomatic perspective, for Mexico to allow itself to be used as this sort of political football by the Democrats. Mexico should want good relations with all Americans — regardless of their party affiliation. A respectful meeting with Trump would certainly score points for Mexico among Republican voters and policymakers.
Peña Nieto’s openness to a meeting could even signal that Trump could be better to work with than Clinton.
Trump, a businessman and thus by trade, a dealmaker, may offer more hope for improved U.S.-Mexico relations based on mutual interests than Clinton, the candidate of the status quo.
Mexico is suffering from many of the same aspects of globalization that Trump and his supporters would like to change. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was supposed to give Mexico special access to the U.S. market — but the benefits of that access have been diluted by President Bill Clinton’s decision to let China into the World Trade Organization. President Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would tie the markets of North America more closely to Asia, would likely further undermine Mexico’s unique access to the U.S. market.
Why should companies invest in Mexico when they can serve this market more cheaply from China or Vietnam? Already, Mexican steel companies have laid off thousands of workers as cheap Chinese imports flood the country. The impact on Mexican steel workers led the government to recently consider a 15 percent tariff on Chinese steel imports. The Mexican government ultimately did not go that far — but it did slap some duties onto Chinese steel, hoping to offer some protection to its vulnerable domestic industry.
We know what the Clintons will offer Mexico — more of the same, including an unchallenged China playing bully in the world marketplace. But a Trump administration would seek to renegotiate the rules of global trade in ways that would benefit the United States. Given the close ties between our two countries, a stronger U.S. economy — and an administration more interested in helping people on this continent than currying favor with China — would be very good for Mexico.
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After all, the Mexican people have lived through empty Clinton promises before.
What was Bill Clinton’s supposed solution to Mexican poverty and illegal immigration? Well, it was NAFTA, of course! The promise was Mexicans would be better off in their country and thereby would stop illegally crossing American borders in search of work.
But while Mexico has enjoyed some benefits from its economic relationship with the United States its more structural problems have lingered.
Nearly 25 years later, Mexico remains in the cross hairs of its drug cartels, while many of its people continue flooding into America seeking jobs unemployed Americans need.
Drug cartels still control much of the country. Guns cross into Mexico from the United States with ease, while migrants and drugs cross into the United States. The status quo is bad for both sides and Peña Nieto should see the opportunity to ensure key Mexican interests in an American push for border security. He should consider economic concessions in exchange for help ridding his nation of mass drug violence.
Getting Back on a Fair Trade Footing
The United States could help with some of Mexico’s serious challenges in exchange for more equitable and updated economic arrangements — arrangements that do not mirror the failed Clinton-backed efforts of the past.
That would mean a President Trump would have a crucial opportunity to rework NAFTA. The most critical component of the two nations’ economic ties is outdated and disproportionately harms American workers.
A renegotiated NAFTA, both our nations should agree, is necessary and would help restore something approaching a trade balance between Mexico and the United States. Special interest objections aside, this is hardly a radical position. In fact, the deal itself requires it — a requirement that has been neglected by the powers that be.
President Obama pledged to renegotiate NAFTA during a Democratic primary debate hosted by the AFL-CIO in August 2007.
“I would immediately call the president of Mexico, the president of Canada to try to amend NAFTA, because I think we can get labor agreements in that agreement right now,” then-Sen. Obama said. “It should reflect the basic principle that our trade agreements should not just be good for Wall Street, it should be good for Main Street.”
Like the promise the president made that under Obamacare, families would save thousands of dollars a year in health care costs, this Obama pledge isn’t worth the teleprompter it was read from.
Instead, eight years later America’s manufacturing industry is reeling. The Great Recession cost the United States an estimated 2.3 million manufacturing jobs, according the Economic Policy Institute, of which only 900,000 have been recouped. Many of those jobs that once fueled Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh vanished permanently and many more moved to nations like Mexico.
A Trump-Peña Nieto summit, of course, won’t solve all the challenges and inequities in U.S.-Mexico relations. But it would show resolve and respect. It would show leadership. And if coupled with serious, positive policy proposals, it would show how we can make our nations’ relationship great again.