By William Reinsch
It appears the U.S. has a president who continues to pick fights with anybody who disagrees with him. Since I write about trade, I’ll put aside the fight with the National Park Service over crowd size or with the media over almost everything and focus on the fight with Mexico, which I suspect will shortly be joined by one with China.
The fight with Mexico, which started out with the wall and who was going to pay for it and moved on to renegotiating NAFTA, seems now to be turning more acrimonious with the Mexican president cancelling his trip here following a cranky exchange of tweets and the U.S. president responding with yet another tweet saying, “Mexico has taken advantage of the U.S. for long enough. Massive trade deficits & little help on the very weak border must change, NOW!” Things seem to be escalating, although an end of week direct conversation seems to have calmed things down temporarily.
Nowadays if we were all in third grade this would probably mean a time-out for the tweeter. Back when I was teaching elementary school we just called this bullying, and most kids knew how to deal with it. There were two ways that seemed to work — stand up to the bully or make fun of him, or both. Sometimes this led to fights, but when you’re nine or ten, back then you expected that occasionally. Of course, on the playground nobody was dealing with someone who had guns, planes, and bombs at his disposal, but fists and jokes did the job more often than not.
Only ten days into the new presidential term, there are some early signs people are catching on and have not forgotten the old lessons of the playground. Jokes about crowd size have been making the rounds, and President Pena Nieto decided to stand up to President Trump by canceling his trip (unfortunately, he did it in a tweet, which only serves to legitimize this malodorous means of communicating). One can argue he did it mainly in response to domestic political pressures, since his approval rating is even lower than Trump’s, but that still means millions of Mexicans have learned from their own playground experience and know what to do.
At this point, no one knows how this particular battle is going to turn out, but I hope one thing will be instructive for the new administration: sovereign nations are hard to push around. They may not be able to match America’s firepower, but realistically we’re not going to use all of it anyway, and there are plenty of ways they can make our lives miserable. Beyond the self-inflicted wounds of an increased tariff — Lindsey Graham said it best when he pointed out (regrettably also in a tweet) what that would do to the price of Corona, tequila, and margaritas (for the more health minded, he could have thrown in avocados and winter tomatoes) — there would be the impact of Mexican retaliation in kind, reducing our exports there, and the enormous disruption of U.S. supply chains, as prices of Mexican parts and components, as in autos, increase and thus add to the price of the finished product. And that does not even get to the prospect of Mexico ending cooperation in other areas such as terrorism and drug trafficking.
And, of course, that’s only Mexico. If Pena Nieto was willing to stand up for his country, we should expect no less — and probably a whole lot more — from the Chinese when their time in the bullseye arrives. There the same consequences would occur, only several orders of magnitude greater. I can predict this based on past Chinese behavior as well as knowing that they don’t have much of a sense of humor when it comes to dealing with other countries, so the ridicule option is off the table for them.
What is missing in the new administration’s approach is the understanding that a lot of diplomacy is about respect — acknowledging the other country’s position and accepting its legitimacy (and that of its government) even while respectfully disagreeing. Policies that humiliate other sovereign governments or treat them like vassal states are doomed to fail for that reason alone.
It may be fun to talk about third grade — a moment of nostalgia, I guess — but the sad thing about this is the long term damage that will be done. We can debate whether some trade or tax action against Mexico will bring any short-term benefits, but it is clear that the president has in ten days managed to destroy the good will between our two countries that has been built up over 25 years. That is a huuuge accomplishment; just not a positive one.
William Reinsch is a Distinguished Fellow with the Stimson Center, where he works principally with the Center’s Trade21 initiative.