Hey, Neighbor

The Mexico relationship is turning sour. And it’s telling. 

I’ve gotten to travel a lot in the last 9 months. I was lucky enough to get to visit Mexico this past week, my first real trip there, despite living just 100 miles from the border for 20+ years. Maybe it’s a bias from growing up in an area with a lot of Mexican influence, but I think we ought to be paying more attention to Mexico, beyond the cartels. For what foreign policy looks like for the next four years, look south.

I visited Mexico City, which is an astonishingly large and amazingly modern city. I went to Playa del Carmen, which felt like an extension of Florida with all the Americans, and got to visit the historical sites of Chichen Itza and Tulum. That still leaves out plenty of Mexico, but it was enough to help rub away some of the stereotypes we’ve been fed in our country.

And oh, the interaction between Mexico and our country. It took a turn for the worse pretty much as soon as Donald swore the oath. He continues to insist that there will be a wall and that Mexico will pay for it, despite the fact (well, everything is despite the fact these days) that it’s unrealistic. He has threatened to send troops to deal with “bad hombres.” President Nieto cancelled a meeting with him, saving what little popularity he has.

WSJ was keen to note that this turn of events is actually a return to normalcy, in a sense, when it comes to U.S.-Mexico relations. After all, no one has forgotten the 1846-8 war, right? Or when Woodrow Wilson actually sent in the feds to stop Pancho Villa? Or Operation Wetback? Though it started cordially in 1821, the relationship has more often than not been marked with distrust, breaches of sovereignty, or outright hostility.

Then slowly, things began to change. Mexico declined to declare war on the U.S. in WWI, sided with the U.S. in WWII, and then focused on its economic ties with the U.S. by signing onto NAFTA in 1994. The U.S., still very pro-trade in those days, jumped at the chance to strengthen its neighbor.

“Nafta has created a mentality in younger Mexicans that the gringos are not our enemies,” says Armando Santacruz, 55, president of a Mexican company that distributes chemicals throughout Latin America.

The cooperation has gone beyond business:

Over the past decade, U.S. law enforcement and military authorities have helped train their Mexican counterparts to fight drugs and organized crime—a once-unthinkable collaboration given historical sensitivities.

And then:

Just as Mexico was beginning to view itself more as North American than Latin American, it feels to many in Mexico as if the U.S. wants to kick it out of the neighborhood.

When I think of a North American equivalent of the EU, or just our relationship in general, I think this awkwardness:

If the U.S.-Mexico relationship is resetting to its default position, maybe the last twenty years have been something of a historical aberration. George Friedman’s speculative book The Next 100 Years even goes as far to predict that by the end of the 21st century, a rising Mexico will wage war on the U.S. (Maybe Donald is here to save us from the future.)

Longtime Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz warily called the U.S. the “colossus of the north” and reportedly said, “Poor Mexico! So far from God, so close to the United States.” How involved the U.S. is in the world can change from any decade or century, but for nearly 200 years, Mexico has always been there.

Trump said in his inauguration speech that “We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world”–but that starts with our southern neighbor. We can talk about the UK or China or Iran or Russia, but the Mexico relationship matters. Before the U.S. pursued imperialism in the late 19th century, it took land from Mexico. Before the U.S. made major interventions in foreign countries, it went into Mexico. How the U.S. treats the more different of its two neighbors is reflected in how it treats every other country: with goodwill and an aim towards mutual benefit, or with exploitation and aggression.


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