Dear Mr. President-elect, congratulations on an impressive electoral victory. Your twelve years of retail politicking, and your persistence in attacking a culture of political patronage and corruption in Mexico clearly resounded among the Mexican people.
Your internal challenges to reshape Mexico’s political class and offer greater equity and economic prosperity for all Mexicans are daunting.
However, you also have a great external challenge to the north. Dealing with your American counterpart, Donald Trump, and managing the bilateral relationship will be an extremely important aspect of your work and legacy, even if you wish it weren’t so.
With over 80% of Mexico’s exports going to the United States and over $1.5bn a day in cross border trade, you cannot simply ignore los gringos, and it will be to Mexico’s disadvantage if you do.
So...how does one deal effectively with the Donald?
First, avoid the trap of the Oval Office. Stay out of it and be your own best iconoclast by NOT meeting with him. Travel to the United States, but don’t go to Washington - at least not right away. Call France’s Emanuel Macron for a quick download as to how it went when he tried to “play” Trump.
While President Trump is your counterpart, make no mistake about the asymmetries in the relationship. It’s not just that the United States has a larger economy, or a larger population than Mexico. The greatest asymmetry is the attitude of President Trump with regard to Mexico. He simply does not care. For him, Mexico is nothing more than a useful piñata to bash when he needs to fire up his base’s base emotions.
So you must employ a tactic of strategic indifference with regard to the President. That said, you must not avoid engaging with the myriad other actors who comprise the rest of the United States government and society.
Cultivate relationships with the roughly 30 governors of the United States for whom Mexico is their state’s number one or two trading partner. They understand that protectionist tariffs on either side of the border ultimately result in higher consumer prices and lost jobs.
As well you have a tremendous opportunity to become a thought leader with respect to the roughly 50 million U.S. persons who claim Mexican heritage. Involve them in your social projects in Mexico. Welcome their monetary and intellectual capital investment. Explain to them and the US media what you are undertaking in Mexico and why.
And while you are studiously NOT reacting to Trump’s latest provocative twitter storm, resist the temptation that some in Mexico have suggested to “leverage” your country’s cooperation on law enforcement, immigration, counter narcotics and counter terrorism collaboration with the United States.
This is a very bad idea and you should make clear you do not intend to do it; not as a favor to the Americans, but because it is squarely in Mexico’s interests to improve its own rule of law by confronting law breakers.
To a certain extent, you and your countrymen will have to learn to live with a degree of cognitive dissonance. Trump will insult Mexico reliably and repeatedly, wishing desperately that you step into the rhetorical ring with him. Meanwhile, with or without NAFTA, Americans and Mexicans will seek out each other’s goods and services. Trump will assert you will pay for the Wall. You won’t, so laugh it off and stay focused on alleviating poverty in your country. This is, of course, unfair to you, but as you say in Mexico say “ni modo” – it is what it is.
If you follow this advice, you will no doubt be criticized at home for not defending Mexico’s sovereignty, a tired expression in political circles that means, as best I can tell, making boisterous anti-American statements but doing very little to actually change the nature of the relationship that Porfirio Diaz recognized is dictated by the immutable reality of geography.
Remember above all Mr. President, that with regard to the United States you are playing a waiting game. You waited 12 years to become president of Mexico. When you take office in December, we will all have a better sense as to President Trump’s staying power as reflected in the November mid-term results.
President Trump will not change his tune regarding Mexico, although he may seek to flatter or court you, depending upon the transactional moment. Your most important task is not to give him any reason to tell his base supporters in 2020, “See? I told you about those bad hombres in Mexico.” The rest is up to the American people to vote him out of office.