Geopolitics on the rocks

Pamela K. Starr

How U.S. and Mexico are prepping for a fight

North America

Despite unprecedented cooperation between the two countries’ bureaucracies, Trump threatens to hit Mexico hard on security, immigration and trade. But Mexico can strike back in many ways

Relations between the United States and Mexico are in a peculiar moment. Prior to the rise of candidate Donald Trump, this relationship was uniformly lauded – by practitioners as well as analysts – as the best it had ever been. The relationship was characterized by close collaboration, mutual respect and partnership deep into the bureaucracies and across the broad spectrum of issues in the relationship – including security matters, a historically sensitive area for Mexican governments.

Then came Trump who, first as candidate and now as president, 1) referred to Mexican immigrants as rapists and murders and to Mexico as a place full of “bad hombres”, 2) threatened to deport tens of thousands of undocumented Mexican migrants, 3) promised to build a wall between our two countries and insisted that Mexico pay for it, and 4) threatened to pull the United States out of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The bilateral relationship is now commonly described as the most tense it has been for at least a generation, and potentially for nearly a century.

This combination of deep, institutionalized cooperation together with tension emanating from the top is something we have never before seen in U.S.-Mexico relations. Precisely where we go from here remains unclear. What is clear is that the relationship is unlikely to return to the pre-Trumpian status quo any time soon.

This is because Mexico no longer trusts the United States to be a reliable partner and neighbor. It has been stunned by how quickly a generational effort to transform the image of Mexico in the United States from problem to partner has been reversed. It has been shocked to discover that the United States is once again willing to exploit the power differential between our two countries to blatantly attempt to coerce Mexico into doing our bidding. And it has suffered economically as Trump’s anti-NAFTA rhetoric has played into pre-existing economic weaknesses to generate a collapse of the peso, declining investment, an implosion of consumer confidence, and as a result anemic growth.

The shock at being treated as a threat and an underling has revived in Mexico a latent but still powerful strain of nationalism. While this New Mexican Nationalism is not anti-American as Mexican nationalism was in the past, it is anti-Trump, profoundly felt, and is unlikely to wane any time soon. Mexicans have been reminded that the United States is at once its greatest potential ally and its greatest potential adversary.

Into this mix of U.S. coercion and Mexican nationalism it is essential to add the profound political weakness of President Enrique Peña Nieto. With his popular approval at just 12%, he is the most unpopular Mexican president since polls began to measure this, and potentially the most unpopular in a century. This reflects corruption in his administration and among governors closely allied with him, rising crime rates and persistent impunity, and an underperforming economy punctuated by a 20% increase in gasoline prices on the first day of 2017. In this context, not responding in kind to President Trump’s aggressions, as is President Peña Nieto’s preference, is a very unpopular stance. But being seen as giving in to American demands or not protecting the interests of Mexicans living in the United States would be political suicide.

So what does all this mean for the bilateral relationship? Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to consider how it is apt to play out in the three core areas of the bilateral relationship: Security, Migration, and Commerce.

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This is the area of bilateral cooperation that is least likely to suffer from the current tensions in the bilateral relationship. Mexico recognizes that the drug trade is a problem for Mexico just as it is for the United States. Violence associated with organized crime presents a profound security challenge for Mexico, and the current government largely agrees with the United States regarding the best approach to dealing with the problem. So Mexico will not be eager to end binational security cooperation despite the unfriendly policies of the Trump Administration. Any threat to this cooperation is actually more likely to come from the U.S. side, as the Trump administration looks for areas of U.S. assistance to Mexico that could be cut to help pay for the border wall.

Mexico also understands the importance of cooperating with the United States on counter-terrorism. It knows that an attack on the United States emanating from Mexico would be a disaster for Mexican national interests. Mexico also understands that its geographic position in the world makes it an essential ally of the United States on security matters, and its weak power position denies Mexico the latitude to refuse the United States on issues deemed essential to U.S. national security, such as counter-terrorism.

So while a future Mexican government might approach security cooperation with the United States differently, especially regarding the best means to fight organized crime, this area of the relationship is unlikely to suffer unless the bilateral relationship were to deteriorate severely.


This is the issue that currently dominates bilateral relations. It is where policy is currently being made – unlike security cooperation which is running on automatic pilot and trade policy where the continuing absence of a U.S. trade representative has limited policy implementation. As such, immigration policy is setting the context within which trade and security cooperation will be negotiated.

It is where Trump Administration policy has most angered Mexico, poisoning the rest of the bilateral relationship. The deportations of undocumented migrants without due process of law, the stated willingness to separate bi-national families, the extension of a southern wall that feels like a very unfriendly gesture, and then insisting that Mexico pay for it, have all made Mexico furious.

But unlike security, immigration it is not an issue where the United States is largely immune to Mexican pressure. To the contrary, the United States is quite vulnerable to Mexican pressure on migration matters. The United States cannot deport undocumented immigrants without the cooperation of their home country, and Mexico has traditionally been a highly cooperative partner, willing to accept all of its citizens whom the United States deports. Mexico has also policed its southern border on behalf of the United States, returning 140,000 Central American migrants bound for the U.S. last year alone. But the Trump administration’s plans for more aggressive enforcement of immigration laws and the rhetoric surrounding it has raised questions in Mexico regarding the wisdom of this traditionally cooperative stance.

One way for Mexico to pressure the United States is by no longer blocking Central American migrants attempting to transit Mexico on their way to the United States. Mexico could instead allow them to pass freely through Mexico, thereby dramatically increasing the number of migrants crossing into the United States.

Mexico could also refuse to accept any deportee who cannot prove he or she is Mexican. Since large numbers of Mexicans in the United States lack such documentation, the Americans will be forced to keep them in detention, clogging up the system and thereby hamstringing the U.S. capacity to deport undocumented migrants. The Mexican government has not expressed any interest in this kind of action, but a recent Department of Homeland Security memo offering implementation guidance for aggressive enforcement of immigration laws has made this outcome much more likely. The Guidance Memo included a provision that would have returned to Mexico non-Mexican asylum seekers, provided they arrived to the United States through Mexico, while they await their hearings.

Mexico officials went ballistic over this policy proposal. They insisted that Mexico would never accept such a unilateral attempt to impose American policy preferences on Mexico. More impactful is the fact that if the United States were to try to compel Mexico to accept non-Mexico asylum seekers, Mexico would be forced to demand documentation from all returning migrants and refuse to accept any who lack documentation proving that they are Mexico. The likely result is that more Mexicans that Central Americans would be turned away and the resulting number of rejected migrants would clog up the U.S. immigration deportation system.


Unlike security, trade is the issue where a non-cooperative outcome is all too likely but, unlike immigration, a cooperative scenario is also plausible. Trade conflict seems all but inevitable when one looks at the two Administrations’ stated bottom lines. Trump insists on bringing jobs back to the United States and reducing the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico, potentially by imposing taxes or quotas on imports from Mexico. Mexico has made it clear that it will not accept any outcome that is not a win-win, that involves tariffs or quotas on Mexican imports, or that in any way undermines Mexican interests. And given Mexico’s domestic political context, these are hard red lines that Mexican negotiators cannot cross and survive politically, even if this means the end of NAFTA.

Trade is also the issue area where Mexico is most vulnerable to Trump administration pressures. The structure of the Mexican economy makes it highly dependent on trade and capital flows with the United States. However, it is also the issue area where the United States is most vulnerable to Mexican pressure, something that most Americans do not realize. Mexico is the second largest market for U.S. exports which translates into 1.1 million U.S. jobs that depend directly on NAFTA, and approximately another five million indirectly rely on NAFTA. In Texas, a deeply republican state, the dependence is even greater with 37% of Texan exports going to Mexico. Mexico and the United States also produce things together, creating striking statistics such as the fact that 38% of U.S. auto parts exports go to Mexico and 40% of the content of the goods the United States imports from Mexico is “Made in the USA”.

Mexico is currently laying the groundwork for a strategy exploit these American vulnerabilities should it be deemed necessary to protect Mexican national interests. Mexico is updating a retaliation strategy implemented during a NAFTA 2011 trucking dispute with the United States that targets politically significant and trade-sensitive U.S. electoral districts. This includes current discussions with Argentina and Brazil to shift some of Mexico’s U.S. corn imports away from the United States, where they account for 28% of all U.S. corn exports, including those from the politically significant mid-western region of the United States.


This strange convergence of cooperation and conflict that now defines U.S.-Mexico relations has moved the bilateral relationship into uncharted territory. Some analysts believe the bilateral tension created by the Trump Administration is part of an intentional strategy to keep Mexico off balance in advance of trade negotiations. Whatever its intent, it has profoundly frustrated Mexico, deepened nationalist sentiments, and hardened the country’s determination not to be pushed around by the United States. And in the process it has severely damaged the binational trust that formed the foundation of bilateral cooperation. Whatever develops in the coming months and years, bilateral ties have been shaken to their core and are unlikely to revert to their pre-Trump cooperative status for a generation or more.

*Pamela K. Starr is the Director of the U.S.-Mexico Network and a professor of international relations and public diplomacy at the University of Southern California. She is also a senior advisor at ManattJones Global Strategies