WASHINGTON, August 31, 2016 — Donald Trump visited Mexico on Wednesday, a first step to improving relations between the Mexican government and a potential Trump Administration.
Trump’s visit was at the invitation of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who extended the invitation on Tuesday. Trump took the opportunity to lay out a five-point agenda to improve relations between the U.S. and Mexico, later characterizing the meeting as “excellent” and “a tremendous honor.”
Pena Nieto characterized the meeting as “open and constructive,” while critics derided it as political stunt. Hillary Clinton was dismissive, telling an audience at the American Legion convention in Cincinnati, “You don’t build a coalition by insulting our friends or acting like a loose cannon. You do it by putting in the slow, hard work of building relationships.”
“Building relationships” is what this type of meeting is in principle about. Senator Barack Obama’s 2008 rainbow tour of Europe and the Middle East was a whirlwind of meetings and public appearances designed to give the junior senator international exposure that he’d never had. He blew through European capitals, meeting British PM Gordon Brown and Conservative Party Leader David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Obama went on to perform his own brand of shuttle diplomacy in Israel and the West Bank. He had breakfast with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Jerusalem, travelled to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, then returned to Jerusalem for dinner with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Whether those meetings constituted the “slow, hard work of building relationships” necessary for successful European and Middle-East policies is for history to judge, but in comparison to the hour Obama spent with Abbas, Trump’s visit with Pena Nieto was almost leisurely.
Obama’s trip was widely hailed as important, and Obama was treated by adoring crowds like a rock star. Trump’s reception in Mexico was less enthusiastic, but if he were to become president, the creation of dialogue between him and Pena Nieto would be no less important.
Clinton has been invited to visit the Mexican president as well, but has yet to accept the invitation. She has recently been more cautious than Trump about taking trips that might be difficult to control, as in her avoidance of flood-devastated Louisiana, but her campaign has expressed her desire to meet with Pena Nieto soon.
American relations with Mexico have never been easy or warm. In addition to contentious issues like trade, drugs and immigration, the two countries have a long history of confrontation, the U.S. relieving Mexico of large territories north of the Rio Grande.
Trump is unlikely to reverse generations of mistrust and hostility. He seems uniquely unqualified to win Mexican hearts and minds. But strong relations between nations aren’t built on affection. They’re built on a clear understanding of shared interests and mutual needs. They’re served less by sentimentality than by a realistic assessment of what the other side can and will bring to the relationship.
Clinton told the American Legion, “”Getting countries working together was my job every day as your secretary of state. It’s more than a photo op. It takes consistency and reliability.”
If Trump and Pena Nieto can manage consistency and cold-eyed realism, it matters little whether Mexicans despise Trump. Likewise, if Clinton manages a foreign policy with Mexico as effective and consistent as the policies she pursued toward Syria, Russia, Ukrain and the Middle East, it matters little whether Mexicans think of her as their own abuelita. Either way, the path forward with Mexico will be difficult, but it may just have become a little easier.