There are three ways to deal with a bully: let him have his way, confront him or ignore him completely. In dealing with Donald Trump, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador — AMLO, as he is known — has chosen the third option. So far it has worked. But the strategy has too many holes to be effective in the long run, especially when applied to a relationship as complex as that between Mexico and the United States.
The key foreign policy challenge faced by AMLO at the beginning of his term was finding a way to rein in the aggressive behavior of the United States, Mexico’s northern neighbor and main trade partner. It now appears the Mexican leader has already found his formula: Don’t pay attention to anything Trump says, and don’t take it personally.
Ignoring Trump - and refraining from replying to his various tweets and threats - requires a Zen-like calm. Many of those who confront him have suffered both wounded pride and a cascade of personal attacks aimed at them on social media. (Trump has over 59 million followers on Twitter.)
The fact that López Obrador has decided to avoid any confrontation, either public or private, with the president of the United States isn’t a matter of boldness or personal value, it’s actually about outsmarting Trump.
A few days ago, Trump posted several tweets against the Mexican administration. “Mexico is doing NOTHING to help stop the flow of illegal immigrants to our Country,” he declared in one. “Next step is to close the border!” he followed in another, making his greatest threat yet.
Any other president would have appeared on TV to provide assurances that Mexico is working hard to tackle the influx of Central American immigrants crossing through its territory to reach the United States, and would have warned that closing the border could have terrible consequences for both countries. Not López Obrador.
When asked to reply to Trump during one of the early morning news conferences he has held almost daily since taking office, AMLO refused, adding only that Mexico should be cautious. Even though this is a very important matter for Mexico, that was all he would say.
López Obrador’s strategy worked. A few days after Trump’s Twitter outburst, the U.S. president walked back his comments, telling a group of reporters that he would give Mexico one year to reduce the flow of drugs into the United States, an issue he sees as directly connected to immigration. If Mexico fails, he added, he will impose economic sanctions on the country and close the border.
By letting Trump twist in the wind by himself, AMLO has gained time, space and, most importantly, achieved his desired results.
Trump is not exactly the Mexican president’s cup of tea. In an interview in 2017, I asked López Obrador if he thought Trump was a racist. “Yes. Yes, he has said so. He fuels racism,” he replied. Even so, AMLO has yet to let his personal opinion of Trump get in the way of the relationship between the two countries.
Still, López Obrador can’t keep ignoring Trump’s rants and abuses indefinitely. There has to be a tipping point. Back when Enrique Peña Nieto was president, I strongly criticized his government for failing to protect the more than 35 million people of Mexican descent living in the United States.
At the time, not a single Mexican official had appeared on Fox News to stand up for those immigrants and against Trump. López Obrador cannot afford to make the same mistake. He must be the president of all the Mexican people, regardless of where they live.
It is clear that Trump will continue his attacks on Mexico, as part of his reelection effort. Someone has to stand up to him.
Unfortunately, I have my doubts that AMLO’s leadership style will change dramatically - or for that matter, soon. Take his March 29 appearance in Poza Rica, in the state of Veracruz, for the presentation of a new social initiative. It suggests two things. First, López Obrador is a leader who enjoys mingling and engaging with people, and prefers following his gut to taking a more institutional approach. Second, he has the strong belief that anyone can defeat a bully by ignoring him.
“Don’t you think that we should have a positive relationship with the administration of President Donald Trump?” López Obrador asked the audience gathered for the event. “Yes,” the people in attendance answered loudly.
“Let’s see by a show of hands who thinks I should reply to President Donald Trump every time he talks about Mexico,” he said, though he already knew what would happen. A video of the event provided by his administration showed no raised hands.
“Now, please show your hands if you think we should be cautious,” he continued. Almost every hand was raised.
“That’s my people!” AMLO concluded with excitement, clapping along.