Mexico Is Doing Trump’s Dirty Work. Enough.
Donald Trump is the most aggressive American president Mexico has had to contend with since James K. Polk, who in 1846 sought a declaration of war against my country. Though Mr. Trump has not declared war against Mexico outright, he has threatened us with tariffs, insulted us, and ordered brutal raids that have sowed fear and anxiety in millions of Mexican immigrants living in the United States, even those there legally.
Mexico has long been a refuge for the persecuted, but now it is breaking with this tradition in an effort to avoid a trade war with the United States. This policy of appeasement has cost much suffering and is unsustainable in the long run. We need to reprise another time-honored tradition: firm, intelligent and dignified diplomacy.
Since Mexican independence in 1821, generations of ministers and ambassadors have had the sole task of figuring out how to deal effectively with their imperious northern neighbor. Though economic and political relations between the two countries have become tense under the Trump administration, our diplomatic relations remain strong. But if President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, continues to acquiesce to Mr. Trump’s demands, it could ultimately undermine this balance.
Mexico is doing Mr. Trump’s dirty work by agreeing to prevent desperate Central American migrants from traveling north. Bowing to the United States demands to avoid tariffs could become a bad habit. We must reject these terms and right the course. Mr. López Obrador, who has said that he has a passion for history, could take advantage of the lessons history can offer.
Appeasement has never been the best option, especially with an unpredictable and tyrannical man like Mr. Trump in power. The solution is a comprehensive diplomatic strategy that takes into account not only the president but all those with influence over bilateral matters — Congress, state governments, economic interests — as well as public opinion and the media.
Consider the decade following the Mexican-American War. In 1851, while the United States was experiencing the euphoria of expansion, Mexico went through the trauma of humiliation. The administrations of Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan sought to impose upon their weakened neighbor the ceding of substantial territory along the border, free passage of armed forces, and the endorsement of a concession to build a route between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific via the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which would have resulted in Mexico losing control of even more of its territory (similar to that of the future Panama Canal Zone).
To avoid that, representatives of the government of Mariano Arista prepared for a military confrontation and secured the support of the Mexican Congress, whose determination concurred with public opinion. These officials understood that President Fillmore did not want to go to war and managed to finalize the matter by compensating the company that had been given the construction concession. They had acted — as one Mexican foreign affairs minister, José Fernando Ramírez, wrote — “with sound judgment, true and enlightened patriotism, and the strength necessary to resist some exaggerated pretensions.”
But 1853 signaled the return of the Mexican strongman system, caudillismo. Overriding the separation of powers, President Antonio López de Santa Anna — who as a general lost Texas in 1836 and the Mexican-American War in 1847 — granted new rights to the United States for railroad construction in Tehuantepec and sold a 30,000-square-mile territory south of Arizona in what is known in the United States as the Gadsden Purchase.
Between 1858 and 1861 a clash between conservatives and liberals led to a bloody civil war, a far graver threat than any foreign entity. Both factions needed financing and arms from Washington. President Buchanan, seeing an opportunity, demanded territory in exchange for support. In 1859, Melchor Ocampo, Mexico’s minister of foreign affairs at the time, signed the McLane-Ocampo treaty, which would have sold the perpetual right of transit across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec for a nominal sum.
It was a dark chapter for Benito Juárez’s otherwise liberal government. In the end, the United States Senate rejected ratification of the treaty in 1860, deeming it too generous to Mexico. Had it been ratified, it would have given the United States major control over Mexican territory.
In the years that followed there were other differences, other disputes. But the dynamic between the two countries was set in that dramatic decade: The United States was cast as a perennial threat and Mexico as the courageous, patiently persuasive underdog. History shows that in most cases Mexican diplomacy prioritized reasonable negotiations, not appeasement, to settle its disputes with the United States. There is no reason to change our approach now.
Mr. Trump is not (yet) almighty. As was the case in the 19th and 20th centuries, there are all sorts of economic interests, especially in key states for the Republican Party, with which the Mexican government must establish a meaningful relationship. When the next tariff threat is handed down, Mexico must be prudent, and, if necessary, seek international arbitration.
Moreover, Mr. Trump’s grasp on power is temporary. He could lose the 2020 presidential election. The Mexican government must bide its time and not further alienate the Democratic Party that President Enrique Peña Nieto aggrieved in August 2016 with an open invitation to Mr. Trump that made him seem “presidential.”
Mexico has been a good neighbor to the United States. Despite grievances, Mexico supported the United States’ struggles for freedom, starting with the American Civil War, and continuing with the two world wars in the 20th century. Walt Whitman, initially a proponent of the war against Mexico in 1847, recognized this, writing in 1864, during the Civil War: “Mexico, the only one to whom we have ever really done wrong, and now the only one that prays for us and our triumph, with genuine prayer. Is it not indeed strange?”
Indeed, it was and still is “strange,” and the Mexican government should encourage knowledge of our common history in the American media.
Finally, a return to Mexican diplomatic tradition requires that Mr. López Obrador avoid the ravages of caudillismo and political discord, which were at the root of past hasty and costly decisions that caused so much harm. United, Mexico has the strength to face the whims of Donald Trump with firmness, intelligence and dignity. The free world would thank us for it. But Mr. López Obrador has deliberately polarized Mexican public opinion on many issues, including his policy toward Trump. This must stop. No war can be won from a house divided against itself.
Published by The New York Times, July 17th, 2019.