National Security & Defense

We Need Mexico on Our Side

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto (Reuters photo: Edgard Garrido)
Tillerson and Kelly must begin repair work in their visit this week

U.S.–Mexico relations are, without question, at their lowest point in decades. Now, just weeks after a cancelled state visit by President Enrique Peña Nieto, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly will arrive in Mexico with a mission to calm the waters.

It’s a tall order. Anti-U.S., or rather anti-Trump, sentiment has swept Mexico, from the #AdiosStarbucks campaign to citizen protests, where more than 20,000 marched in Mexico City last week and another 10,000 in Guadalajara. Still, Tillerson and his Mexican counterpart, Luis Videgaray, are committed to finding common ground. For his part, Kelly brings to the table a deep relationship with Mexican officials forged while head of U.S. Southern Command.

But with a self-made U.S.–Mexico crisis originating at the White House, it remains to be seen how much leverage these U.S. officials will have in putting the relationship back on course. Yes, Videgaray has known Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, for some time. But will President Trump even partially cede Mexico policy to two secretaries beyond his inner circle? After all, a tough line with Mexico generated excitement among supporters on the campaign trail, and now, as a president still in campaign mode, he believes that pushing Mexico around is easy political red meat to throw to his base.

But a perceived short-term political win could cause major disruptions, not only to the now-fragile U.S.–Mexico relationship, but to security on both our southern and our northern borders. Now more than ever, it’s important to remember the strategic imperative of the North American experiment.

NAFTA, beyond the important focus on the commercial linkages it has created, is more than an economic agreement. It has created a trilateral partnership unmatched by any other. That’s precisely why our imbroglio with Mexico is so unnerving. What’s more, while Canada and the U.S. have been longtime allies, only recently have we won Mexico’s trust and true partnership. It’s worth examining all that we’ve gained from doing so, and all that we stand to lose by backpedaling.

The economic linkages are obvious (albeit grossly mischaracterized in political rhetoric as of late). Mexico and Canada are now two of our top three trading partners. Combined, the two invested nearly $400 billion in the U.S. in 2015. Combined U.S. and Mexican foreign direct investment in Canada has tripled since 1993. Cross-border production chains mean that 40 cents’ worth and 25 cents’ worth of every dollar we import from Mexico and Canada, respectively, is U.S. content. Cars produced in the Great Lakes region cross the U.S.–Canada border multiple times during production, and we get a significant portion of the parts used in those cars tariff-free from Mexico. These types of three-country value chains make U.S. car prices competitive in the global market.

Beyond trade, NAFTA has revolutionized Mexico in a way that is unambiguously good for the rest of the continent. The agreement has given rise to a sizeable and resilient Mexican middle class, allowing ever greater numbers to attend university. The country now graduates more engineers annually than does Germany. This is creating a vibrant consumer base for U.S. products and a pool of highly skilled human capital just south of our border ready to help lift the boats of all Mexicans. Look around the world and it’s clear what the consequences are of prosperous versus unstable neighbors.

But perhaps even more important — and more tenuous — is the shift in Mexican national identity that NAFTA precipitated. Just a few generations ago, antagonism toward the United States was an integral part of Mexican political discourse. But deepening commercial ties created a flourishing Mexican–American community in Mexico itself, one that has influenced Mexico’s culture just as much as ours. In the past two decades, Mexicans have developed a unique ethos, allowing them to feel every bit as North American as they do Latin American. It would be in our best interest not to revert to the old state of affairs.

With General Kelly accompanying Tillerson on Thursday’s visit, national security is sure to be on the docket. Encouragingly, Kelly has stressed the importance of cooperation in addressing security issues — a position he long advocated during his military years. It is absolutely crucial that this outlook prevail over that of the White House.

When Mexico decided that North American integration was the way forward, it immediately became our most strategic national-security partner. The mid-January extradition of El Chapo to the United States is a case in point. Mexico readily complies with U.S. extradition requests, and Mexican federal police have a history of successfully pursuing fugitives for whom the Department of Justice issues arrest warrants.

When Mexico decided that North American integration was the way forward, it immediately became our most strategic national-security partner.

This hasn’t always been the case. Extradition requests had historically been a source of contention between our two countries; from 1988 to 1996, Mexico extradited just 39 criminals to the U.S. Under Felipe Calderón’s administration (2006–12), this number reached over 100 per year.

Cooperation between our law-enforcement agencies has increased dramatically, with Mexican — and Canadian — authorities doing far more to secure our borders than a wall ever could. The Border Enforcement Security Task Force, for example, has facilitated trilateral intelligence sharing. U.S. law enforcement now collaborates heavily with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Mexican Secretariat of Public Safety to investigate and impede transnational criminal activity in the north and the south. This kind of cooperation is a cornerstone of the North American experiment.

Perhaps the single most strategic example of our security partnership with Mexico lies not at our southern border but at Mexico’s. Interdiction at the traditionally porous Mexico–Guatemala border is a new initiative that Mexico is carrying out at the request of Washington. With massive numbers of unauthorized Central American migrants trekking north to the U.S., Mexico’s own efforts to stem the flow take an enormous burden off our Border Patrol along the Rio Grande.

This administration would do well to remember that Mexico’s cooperation is not guaranteed. Indeed, the populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a far-left presidential contender whose popularity surges with every Trump tweet, has called on the government to abandon interdiction at the Guatemalan border, criticizing Mexico for “doing the U.S.’s dirty work.”

Here lies the danger in dismantling what we’ve built over the last 20-plus years. North America today is no mere agglomeration of countries; it’s a unified continent, each of its three parts thriving off the prosperity of the whole.

NAFTA, the driving force behind this integration, is not perfect. It can and should be modernized. Trilateral negotiations should add new provisions to address 21st-century concerns. But attempting to do so bilaterally will leave the agreement to crumble, to the detriment of all involved.

If we continue to antagonize Mexico, with Canada hesitant to defend it or North America forcefully, then Mexico will be forced to play its trump card: severely pulling back on decades of strategic cooperation. A return to pre-NAFTA antipathy will not just cost us economically; it will jeopardize our national security.

Tillerson and Kelly are fully cognizant of this. Far from making a routine visit, they will be in damage-control mode from the minute they hit the tarmac on Thursday. Whatever one’s thoughts on this administration, with so much at stake, we had better wish them success.

— Jason Marczak is the director of the Latin America Economic Growth Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, which leads the nonpartisan #WhyMexico Initiative.

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