Trump Threatens a Good Neighbor
For Mexico, the United States has been a difficult neighbor, sometimes violent, almost always arrogant, almost never respectful, rarely cooperative. Mexico, on the other hand, has been a good neighbor to the United States.
To each offense, we have responded first with a gesture of noble resignation and then by searching for a practical resolution through a conciliatory openness of mind. Our positive attitude has allowed our two nations to live for almost 200 years in a generally peaceful atmosphere, though there have been tragic episodes and periods of tension. It is a record of tranquillity that few countries sharing a border can claim.
But this state of relative accord is now being menaced by President-elect Donald J. Trump, who brandished a rabidly anti-Mexican agenda during his campaign and once elected showed a disposition to act on the basis of his slanders. At his news conference on Wednesday, he vowed again that Mexico would pay for the wall he wants to build. It may well be time for Mexico to change its practice of using appeasement to cushion the damage of historical grievances.
The first and most serious offense was of course the American invasion of Mexico in 1846 and the subsequent Mexican-American War, which resulted in Mexico losing more than half of its territory. It was so traumatic an event that it became the theme of our national anthem.
James K. Polk, the president behind the invasion, was a wealthy Southern cotton planter and slave owner who called Mexicans an inferior race, and the war unleashed a surge of nationalist sentiment among Americans. Of the 75,000 American soldiers involved, more than 13,000 died, a greater proportion of the population than in the Vietnam War. The number of Mexican dead has never been firmly established, but it was certainly much greater in both absolute and relative terms.
And my reference to Vietnam is not accidental. According to ample testimony in American newspapers and private letters, the American troops in Mexico committed numerous massacres and other atrocities. Ulysses S. Grant would write in his memoirs, “I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than the one waged by the United States on Mexico.”
Nevertheless, Mexico accepted defeat and moved on. It supported the Union in the American Civil War and, after 1876, opened its doors wide to American investment in railroads, mining, agriculture, ranching, logging, manufacturing, public services, banking and the oil industry. In 1910, at the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, American investment in Mexico was greater than that of all other countries combined.
The second grave offense took place in February 1913. Francisco I. Madero had become president through the first truly democratic election in Mexican history. He was an admirer of the United States. But the United States ambassador, Henry Lane Wilson, worried that Mr. Madero’s policies would hurt American business interests, and helped orchestrate a coup that resulted in the assassination of Mr. Madero and his vice president. Mexico immediately plunged into a ferocious civil war that killed hundreds of thousands. The advent of Mexican democracy was postponed for almost 90 years.
Still, in 1917, when Germany proposed an alliance against the United States with the promise of returning the territories lost in 1848, President Venustiano Carranza disdained the offer.
The third serious offense consisted of a period of prolonged hostility. In 1914, the United States Marines occupied Veracruz, and two years later American troops entered northern Mexico in unsuccessful pursuit of Pancho Villa, who had attacked the town of Columbus, N.M. Frequent “fake news” reports in the 1920s by the Hearst newspapers, supported by American oil interests, were published in the hopes of instigating war against Mexico. Supporters of an invasion were almost at the point of achieving it in 1927, when President Calvin Coolidge’s administration called the country “Soviet Mexico.” Although congressional opposition thwarted an invasion, relations remained tense. Right up to the end of World War II, an American invasion seemed at least a threat.
But Mexico did not sever relations with the United States. On the contrary, Mexico honored its debts and its agreements, attracted and inspired American artists and writers, favored American business investment, cooperated with Franklin D. Roosevelt on his Good Neighbor Policy and, in 1942, declared war on the Axis powers and sent an aerial squadron to fight in the Pacific War. In 1947, an age of cooperation began that the New York Times reporter Alan Riding called the era of “distant neighbors.”
By 1994 we had become close neighbors, partners and even friends. The two countries have jointly achieved many things and bilateral trade has increased by 556 percent. The governments of Mexico and the United States were hoping that healthy progress would continue, strengthening the North American free trade zone. Unfortunately, as on so many issues, the victory of Mr. Trump has changed all the rules. With Mexico, a new period of confrontation has arisen, not military but surely commercial, diplomatic, strategic, social and ethnic. Mr. Trump is essentially calling for a confrontation between the countries.
Mexico must respond differently this time. The Mexican Congress should offer the world an example of dignity by demanding that the next president of the United States apologize for having called Mexicans rapists and criminals. Such an apology is imperative, and would be the best signal that any negotiations, difficult as they may be, could be conducted within a framework of mutual respect and good faith.
Another point that is not negotiable is the wall. The Mexican government must make it clear that Mexico will never pay for Mr. Trump’s wall in any way. Without meeting these two points, there are no grounds for a negotiation.
A priority for the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto has to be preserving the objective advantages of our bilateral commerce. Mexico must oppose Mr. Trump’s call for mass deportations of Mexicans. Such a move would not only gravely damage both countries’ economies but further inflame the racial hatred that has become resurgent because of the Trump campaign.
Finally, Mexico should make it clear that a severe economic crisis in our country set off by Mr. Trump’s politics would lead to extraordinary instability on the border and an inevitable wave of migration that no wall could conceivably stem.
The friendship between our modern countries is a state of mutually beneficial harmony that surely deserves to be preserved. A confrontation should be avoided. But Mexico is not the defenseless country it was in 1846. It has legal means of response to assaults, whether in commerce or migration, diplomacy or security. And it will not stand alone but will find support among key political and economic figures and forces in the United States and in much of the rest of the world. It would be a battle of great ethical significance.