President Donald Trump’s row with Mexico has not only set back relations with our southern neighbor, it is undermining the standing of the United States throughout the Americas. It occurs at a time when cooperation on issues like migration, organized crime and trade has been at an all time high, and the region has shifted away from the statist, anti-American positions marked by the Venezuelan government-inspired ALBA bloc. Such collaboration is suddenly in jeopardy, with troubling consequences for U.S. national security and economic prosperity.
Favorable opinion of the United States in the Americas had risen markedly in recent years. In Mexico, for example, fewer than half of Mexicans had a favorable opinion of the United States in 2008—the year President Barack Obama was elected. Seven years later, two-thirds did. President Obama’s calls for partnership with Latin American governments, the restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba, support for Colombia’s peace process, and increased assistance to Central America to address the violent crime and poverty that fuel illegal migration helped to build a reservoir of good will and collaboration over matters of national interest for the United States.
This constructive approach coincided with the recent emergence of new leaders in countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Peru that solidified a growing regional desire for the rule of law and market economies and a closer alignment with the United States.
As a result, the Trump administration inherited a Western Hemisphere that, with a few exceptions, was ideologically aligned and accustomed to working with the U.S. on critical issues, such as trade, energy, migration, and drug trafficking.
That political will is already dissipating, however. After the continued dispute over payment for a U.S. border wall and threats to impose taxes on Mexican imports prompted Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to cancel his visit to the White House, Latin American governments and their citizens are becoming increasingly wary of the new administration.
Friendly Latin American leaders, including the presidents of Colombia and Peru, are now lining up in solidarity with Mexico against the Trump administration. Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, in an appearance with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, noted in reference to Mexico: “Right now one of us is facing serious difficulties that are not of its own making. We have to stand together on our ideals, on global trade which has done us so much good.”
Santos echoed the sentiment, urged the region (with one neighbor clearly in mind) to adhere to “principles that have been so good for the world,” including free trade, respect for treaties and multilateral solutions.
Trump’s disrespect for Mexico’s president and its people has also managed to give the discredited and increasingly isolated leader of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, an opportunity to look like a regional statesman. Shortly after the blowup, Maduro tried to take advantage of the tensions with Mexico to ingratiate himself with Peña Nieto and isolate the United States by declaring, “If you pick on Mexico, you’re picking on Venezuela.”
The return of an antiquated North-South divide in hemispheric relations comes at a particularly inopportune time. The U.S. needs regional support to manage serious challenges in the Americas, such as Maduro’s authoritarian misrule in Venezuela, transnational criminal activity and rising discontent over cooling economies.
In Venezuela, which holds the world’s largest oil reserves but suffers from severe shortages of food and medicine, a flagging dialogue between the government and opposition will never succeed without greater international pressure. That requires U.S. leadership and capacity to mobilize Venezuela’s neighbors. Trump’s hostility toward migrants and bullying of the press, judges and his political opponents has already undercut America’s standing as a champion of democracy and human rights, but the quarrel with Mexico will make it even more difficult for U.S. diplomats to persuade countries to align with the U.S. to defend democratic norms—not just in Venezuela but elsewhere, such as Nicaragua.
The U.S. will also need cooperation from countries in the Americas to combat the criminal organizations engaging in a range of nefarious activities, from drug trafficking to illegal mining to human trafficking. Given lingering resentment over past U.S. interventions, receiving U.S. security support and assistance is a delicate political balancing act for many countries; it will become even more so if the U.S. again becomes a political pariah in the region.
It is not too late, however, for the Trump Administration to mend relations with Mexico and attempt to recover America’s standing in the region. The first step is for the White House to allow Mexico experts at the State Department and on the National Security Council (NSC) staff who have thus far been marginalized to take the lead in developing a government-wide approach that reflects the long-term interests of both countries.
And while there is a good argument for updating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the groundwork for such negotiations should be laid respectfully and quietly. Similarly, migration is a fitting topic for discussion with Mexico; such talks can begin by discussing how the United States can continue to support Mexico’s efforts to lawfully contain the flow of illegal migration of Central Americans transiting through Mexico on their way to the United States.
As the Trump Administration confronts global challenges such as the Islamic State, saber rattling North Korea, and Russian aggression, Americans can be comforted that our own hemisphere is largely stable, peaceful and friendly. The first step toward keeping it that way is to restore respectful relations with a country with which we share a 2000-mile border and whose security and economic prospects are deeply intertwined with our own.