Mexican standoff? The paradox of President Trump’s policies on Mexico

By Dr Tom Long, Lecturer in International Relations, School of Politics, Economics and International Relations, University of Reading

As Donald J. Trump is inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States of America, perhaps no country is more nervous than Mexico.

The United States’ southern neighbour has good reason for concern. Its economy and society are highly linked with the United States.

Trump has shaken the very pillars of the relationship. By threatening to upend the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), the new president takes aim at the heart of Mexico’s economic strategy. About 80 percent of Mexican exports go to the United States, ranging from oil to fruit to automobiles. Trump’s highly publicised battles with companies that invest and outsource in Mexico attacks one of Mexican leaders’ key plans for job creation.

Dividing wall

Perhaps most troubling of all, Trump’s plans to deport millions of undocumented Mexican migrants and then build a border wall could tear apart the increasingly closely knit social fabric of communities that straddle the US-Mexican border.

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A Mexican standoff. And a wall. Picture CC Martin SoulStealer

Trump does not hold all the cards, however. US exports to Mexico have nearly quintupled since Nafta came into force in 1994, and US companies have huge stakes in the free flow of goods and services. Those corporations depend on a strategy of complex supply chains that is easily damaged by ‘thickening’ the border. Those powerful players will strongly oppose attempts to blow up the trade deal or impose border taxes.

‘Trump may find himself locked in a paradox. The harder he pressures Mexico to achieve his goals, the more he will undermine US interests in the country and at home’

In the end, Trump risks harming US competitiveness and hollowing out a key Republic Party plank of free trade.

While Trump has claimed his proposed border wall would shut off the flow of migrants and drugs, he is likely to be sorely disappointed. Migration from Mexico has dropped to net-zero in recent years; that so-called ‘problem’ has already been solved.

Meanwhile, the United States depends heavily on cooperation with Mexican authorities to interdict drugs, halt human smuggling, and prosecute organised crime. Harsh economic, immigration, and border policies could worsen the domestic situation in Mexico, fuelling migrants and strengthening the drug cartels.

Trump may find himself locked in a paradox. The harder he pressures Mexico to achieve his goals, the more he will undermine US interests in the country and at home.

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