What Trump’s wall means for U.S. relations with Mexico

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Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto speaks to the audience during a meeting with members of the Diplomatic Corps in Mexico City, Mexico January 11, 2017. Picture taken January 11, 2017.  REUTERS/Carlos Jasso - RTSWFTD

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ANTONIO MORA: Let’s take a closer look now at the rift developing between President Trump and Mexico’s Enrique Pena Nieto.

For what that might mean for both countries, I’m joined by Roger Noriega of the American Enterprise Institute. He’s a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in the George W. Bush administration. And James Carafano, vice president of the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation.

Very good to have you both here.

Roger, I want to start with you.

Was the cancellation of this meeting, because both leaders were backed into a corner, Donald Trump by his promises in the campaign that he was going to build that wall and Mexico was going to pay for it, and Pena Nieto because his approval ratings are so terrible, that he has to play hardball politically?

ROGER NORIEGA, American Enterprise Institute: Well, I think it’s fair to say that this was a very uncomfortable exchange between these two leaders.

Certainly, I think President Trump didn’t want to be seen as having a meeting canceled on him, so he suggested that it was a common decision to maybe reschedule.

But, from the point of view of Pena Nieto, he — you know, the insistence that Mexico’s going to pay for a wall, in spite of his declarations to the contrary, put this very weak president on the defensive at home.

And, you know, this is our second largest trading partner. This is a country we should be cultivating a positive dialogue about how we work together to make ourselves more secure and more competitive vis-a-vis the rest of the world.

ANTONIO MORA: And, James, did Pena Nieto have really any choice, after President Trump tweeted that the meeting had to be canceled if Mexico wasn’t going to pay for the wall?

JAMES CARAFANO, Heritage Foundation: Yes, I don’t think it’s just about that tweet.

And I want to start by saying, I think the Mexican government actually started out exactly right, and not just what the president has said, but the whole the way the campaign rhetoric was portrayed. That’s what’s being dumped into Latin America. They’re not watching FOX News.

And, I mean, they’re basically hearing a very vitriolic, very aggressive description of this.

ANTONIO MORA: But is there really any side in Mexico?

JAMES CARAFANO: Well, that’s the only side that you hear in Mexico.

But, yet, the administration started out wanting to be open, be constructive, and engaging with the U.S. I think they did a great job. They sent every positive signal that they wanted to work with you, and…

ANTONIO MORA: But then now this.

JAMES CARAFANO: And the U.S. — I think this administration responded in kind. They were appreciative. They were really looking forward to this.

ANTONIO MORA: But the Mexican foreign minister came, and on the day the Mexican foreign minister came into the U.S., that tweet went out. You were involved in the transition.


ANTONIO MORA: Was there a discussion of what would happen if they got to this impasse?

JAMES CARAFANO: Well, I didn’t — I just don’t think we’re at an impasse.

I think we’re at a bump in the road. And here’s why I think a bump in the road. At the end of the day, the Mexican government made the right call. They want to work with the United States, and they do believe they can work with this administration. And, as long as they’re in power…


JAMES CARAFANO: Well, let me finish. I think they’re committed to that.

And here’s the deal. I think if they — if the administration actually follows through on the plan — and I’m not talking about tweeting and what’s reported in the media or anything else — but the things that Tillerson and Mattis and Kelly talk about, the things they want to do in terms of securing the border, which actually benefits both sides, and in terms of modernizing the trade relationships, which again benefits both sides, at the end of the day, it’s going to be good for the United States and good for Mexico.

So it’s good that, despite the negative opinion in Mexico that makes it very, very difficult for this administration to move on, that they keep moving on with their relationship. That’s …


ANTONIO MORA: Roger, do you agree that it’s just a bump in the road, or is this something more serious?

ROGER NORIEGA: Well, unfortunately, I think Pena Nieto was in a very weak position in his political party. And the economy is dead in the water. Oil prices have caused deficits to go up. The wrong kinds of economic policies and tax policies at home there in Mexico are sort of stifling its own productivity.

So, those are the sorts of things that we should be working with, with our partners in Mexico to overcome, and, for that matter, Canada, too, as part of this great NAFTA opportunity that serves all of our interests.

Unfortunately, this kind of confrontational approach and this insistence that Mexico’s going to pay for the wall actually weakens the position of that responsible center in Mexico that wants to cooperate more with us.

And you have people waiting in the wings, far left wings, by the way, who are anti-American, who are populists, who do not believe in NAFTA either…

ANTONIO MORA: You’re talking about Lopez Obrador.

ROGER NORIEGA: Lopez Obrador in particular.

And, quite frankly …

ANTONIO MORA: So, you’re worried that Lopez Obrador could win an election and be the Mexican Hugo Chavez?

ROGER NORIEGA: His polls are going up.

And if we think Venezuela is a mess where it is, let’s see a failed state on the U.S. border.

ANTONIO MORA: And what about this back-and-forth today on the tariffs, on Mexican imports, which they seem to have backed off a little bit? But the danger there, if that happened, if NAFTA goes away and they can impose those tariffs, do you think there’s any chance that we could see a trade war between Mexico and the United States?

JAMES CARAFANO: Well, I think it’s very unlikely that we’re going to see a trade war between the United States and Mexico because it’s in nobody’s interest to see a trade war.

Maybe this is a negotiating tactic. This is the guy that wrote “The Art of the Deal.” Maybe they said that. And maybe the next thing they do is turn around and the Mexican president says, well, that’s unacceptable. And we say, OK, we make a concession to you, we’re not going to do that.

And, all of a sudden, the Mexican president looks stronger. So, where my optimism comes from is the only path forward for Mexico is better security on the border, a productive trade relationship with the United States, and a cooperative U.S.-Mexican regional approach to dealing with the regional issues which are hurting them and hurting us.

So, it’s the only practical course forward.

ANTONIO MORA: And that’s not just important for Mexico. It’s important for the United States.

And it’s a huge trade partner of ours. We rely on them on counterterrorism efforts, counternarcotic efforts. And millions of jobs are either in whole or partially dependent on trade with Mexico in the United States.

ROGER NORIEGA: Absolutely, 14 million jobs on NAFTA in general, six million just on trade with Mexico.

And I’m sure Jim would agree with me completely that we want more cooperation from Mexico on illegal immigration, to secure that border, to fight drugs, and, for that matter, create the kind of economic dynamism among our three countries that will create jobs for all of our folks here in North America.

But you’re not going to get more of that with this kind of confrontational approach.

ANTONIO MORA: I only have 30 seconds left, so I want you guys to get a quick final word.

How do you think this is going to play out?


JAMES CARAFANO: And I think there’s a joint responsibility here with the U.S. government and the Mexican government to address that issue of the American people, and both of our governments together convince them that this plan, despite that is said in the press and everything else, that this plan, if it is followed through both on security and trade, at the end of the day, is going to be good for Mexico.

And that’s, I think, a joint responsibility with the Trump and the Mexican present administration. So, they have got the work cut out for them, no question.

ANTONIO MORA: But with all this confrontation?

ROGER NORIEGA: We need more cooperation, more understanding, more communication in a mutual, respectful way.

Look, my president is the American president. And I want him to succeed in making that border more secure and generating jobs for us. But we have to do it in a cooperative way with our natural partners.

ANTONIO MORA: An issue for an awful lot of people.

Roger Noriega, James Carafano, very good to you have both here.



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