The Strategic Importance of Trump-Lopez Obrador Meeting

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at the National Palace, Mexico city, Mexico, July 7, 2020.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at the National Palace, Mexico city, Mexico, July 7, 2020. | Photo: EFE

By: John M. Ackerman

Trump and AMLO worked together to craft a new version of the 1994 NAFTA agreement.

July 7 (teleSUR) We should not underestimate the enormous symbolic and strategic importance of the meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) in Washington on July 7.

Trump was elected in 2016 on an explicitly anti-Mexican platform. He called Mexicans “rapists” and threatened to end the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) while vowing to build an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful wall” on the border with Mexico.

In contrast, in 2017, Lopez Obrador, as a presidential candidate, undertook a tour across the U.S. to express his solidarity with Mexican migrants threatened by Trump’s draconian immigration policies. The Mexican leader called Trump a “neo-fascist” and presented international human rights claims against the White House both in the United Nations (UN) and at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

Once AMLO was elected president in 2018, the expectation was that the two heads of state would inevitably collide, spoiling a long history of constructive bilateral collaboration. Surprisingly, however, Trump and Mexico’s president have gotten along really well.

Lopez Obrador made the first goodwill move. The Mexican leader could have easily used his political capital —after a landslide victory in July 2018— to stir up the masses against the bully in Washington.

Instead, he brandished a pen and wrote a letter to Trump in which he proposed “a new stage in the relationship between Mexico and the U.S., based on mutual respect and the identification of areas of mutual understanding and interests.”

Trump followed suit. Rather than railing against a new “radical leftist” president south of the border, Trump called the Mexican leader to congratulate him warmly on election day. Immediately afterward, he sent a high-level delegation to meet with AMLO’s transition team in Mexico City and quickly set to work forward with bilateral trade negotiations.

Of course, Trump has continued to insult Mexicans and immigrants while applying pressure on the Mexican government to control the flow of migrants north. The U.S. president, however, has not taken a single action against the AMLO administration or violated Mexican sovereignty, something which is not a small feat, given the White House’s tendency toward neo-imperialist policies, such as with Venezuela and Iran, for instance.

The biggest risk to the bilateral relationship was the possible end of free trade. Trump promised time and again to end NAFTA, calling it a “job-killing failure.” And Lopez Obrador, and the Mexican left in general, had for decades blamed NAFTA for having destroyed the countryside and fragmented the national industrial policy.

Mexico’s former president Enrique Peña Nieto salvaged negotiations by succumbing to Washington’s whims in 2017. He was desperate to avoid the economy’s collapse on the eve of the 2018 elections, which would have ruined any possibility of his party retaining the presidency. But once AMLO won, the alarms sounded, given that it was not entirely clear how Trump would respond to a stronger Mexican president committed to defending the sovereignty of his country.

Miraculously, the two presidents reached a deal and the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) was born. Both Trump and AMLO put their ideologies aside and worked together to craft a new version of an agreement that would facilitate the growth and prosperity of an increasingly integrated North American economy.

Mexico is the United States’ third most important trading partner and the U.S. is Mexico’s first, with US$670 billion in goods of services cross the border each year. Neither country could afford to simply end NAFTA with nothing to replace it. Therefore, both sides compromised on key issues, Mexico on domestic content of auto manufacturing, and the U.S. on Mexican oil sovereignty, all in the interest of regional development.

If NAFTA had not been replaced with the USMCA, the prospects for economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic would be even direr. If Trump and AMLO had fallen into the temptation of tweet fights, political bravado, and sterile competition, the economies of both Mexico and the United States would be on the verge of collapse today. Fortunately, reason and long-term self-interest have prevailed.

Lopez Obrador chose Washington for his first foreign visit since his election as a testament to the deep ties uniting both nations. Fears that Trump will use the landmark meeting to boost his reelection campaign or humiliate the Mexican president are misplaced.

They underestimate the dignity and the political savvy of Lopez Obrador, who will insist on being treated as an equal and will not hesitate to defend the rights and interests of Mexicans who inhabit both sides of the Rio Grande.

The stark contrast between the politics and ideology of these leaders only highlights the summit’s historical importance. Despite the forces pulling the two countries apart, our mutual bonds are even stronger.