It is no secret that Donald Trump began his presidential campaign with a series of calumnies directed at Mexico, which he painted as a wily enemy, and its émigrés, whom he damned as bearers of drugs and crime. Again and again, he boasted that he would force Mexico to pay for his border wall, a claim that met with ferocious denunciations from Mexicans who had every reason to resent the slight. So it is fitting that for Trump’s nationalist agenda on trade and immigration to achieve durable success, he will have no choice but to secure Mexico’s fulsome cooperation.
Over the past few days, negotiators representing the U.S. and Mexico have expressed cautious optimism about the prospects for a revised NAFTA. The hope is that a deal can be finalized before Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s widely reviled incumbent president, leaves office, thus sparing Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the president-elect, considerable vexation. Mexican officials are reportedly willing to make concessions on the rules governing the tariff treatment of the automotive sector while their U.S. counterparts are softening their demands for new protections for fruit and vegetable growers. Many sticking points remain, but the renewed urgency on both sides is an encouraging sign. Notwithstanding the president’s insistence that he is “in no rush” to cut a deal, there is a widespread belief in the Trump White House that a preliminary agreement with Mexico on NAFTA would prove a political boon. If nothing else, it would reassure panicked Republicans that the threat of an immensely disruptive North American trade war has passed, and it might even allow Trump and his allies to claim, however implausibly, that the president’s brinkmanship had yielded a better deal for U.S. workers.