Like President Donald Trump, the new President-elect of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is adding his name to a growing list of elected leaders worldwide who have been swept into office on a trend of populist disaffection with the global political establishment. López Obrador’s decisive win is rattling international investors, Mexican business leaders, and many Americans who are alarmed that a leftist Evo Morales-type leader has suddenly appeared right on our doorstep.
The US-Mexico relationship is at its lowest and most dangerous level in years. Recent US policies advocating a security wall and separation of families at the border, along with NAFTA negotiations on the verge of collapse, have left this once very special relationship in tatters even before the Mexico election. Given these political realities, what should the United States’ position be towards the new Mexican leader, who comes to office with an electoral mandate?
For President Trump, López Obrador’s victory represents an opportunity to rebuild a strained relationship. Both men are populist leaders who talk directly to their bases and could use the same candor to talk to each other. On the other hand, if President Trump chooses to alienate him — as he has our Canadian and European allies — López Obrador could become a thorn in his side by refusing to cooperate on critical bilateral issues, such as drugs, cartels, trade and investment. To start on the right track, Trump must do the following;
First, immediately call López Obrador to congratulate him on his victory and invite him to the White House as President-elect. (On Sunday, Trump offered congratulations via Twitter.) The gesture of a call and an invitation would go a long way, given the turbulent Trump-Peña Nieto relationship that never produced a White House visit.
Second, pursue a policy of benign neglect; give López Obrador time and space to develop his own policies rather than cornering him into carrying his political capital to defend himself from unreasonable demands, such as paying for a border wall. While benign neglect was derided as a US policy approach to Latin America in the past, it might make sense today.
Third, settle NAFTA negotiations as soon as possible. This is an agreement that has been improved and modernized by the three countries in recent negotiations. It is a good solid agreement, particularly for US agricultural interests. López Obrador made it clear during his campaign that he has no interest in repealing NAFTA, as many critics had assumed. He has even gone as far as proposing a 30-kilometer duty free zone along the US-Mexico border to increase border trade.
Fourth, end the use of White House back channels between both countries that bypassed both the State Department and experienced diplomats on both sides. The Jared Kushner channel has only added confusion and misunderstandings on both sides. The proper contact is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the State Department.
Fifth, at the outset, focus the new relationship on issues where there is common ground with little chance of friction, such as narcotics cooperation, organized crime and cartels, and bilateral trade and commerce.
No one knows for certain which López Obrador will show up at Los Pinos (the Mexican White House), the pragmatist or the revolutionary. President Trump seems to have an affinity for unusual leaders like himself; if he is able to recognize and exploit his similarities with López Obrador, rather than their differences, he might be able to set a more positive course with Mexico, a key US ally and neighbor.
I bet López Obrador will be more pragmatic than revolutionary when it comes to foreign policy — particularly with the United States, given our mutual dependence and shared interests. Should President Trump not extend the hand of friendship at the outset and give the new Mexican President some space, there will be more trouble for an already deteriorating yet crucial US relationship.
We don’t need to alienate more of our friends around the world.