“The Wall”—a mythically impenetrable structure to seal off the southern border with Mexico—was the rallying cry of President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Chants of “build the wall,” followed by the rhetorical question, “And who’s going to pay for it?” prompted an immediate response from Trump crowds all over the country: “Mexico!”
Yet the Trump administration’s statements since he took office make clear that Trump’s demand that Mexico pay for the wall is less seeing that Mexico actually pay and more about humiliating its neighbor as part of the president’s policy of making “America First.”
Last Wednesday, the wall became official policy, with Trump signing an executive order ordering its immediate construction along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as the detention and expedited deportation of undocumented migrants. Yet the order calls for the wall to be paid for by existing federal funds and even includes developing “long-term funding requirements” in future federal budgets.
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After the executive order was signed, the administration suggested that the wall be financed by a 20% tax on Mexican imports. Economists have pointed out that American consumers would ultimately foot this cost, and even Republicans have winced at the potential impact on the U.S. economy.
A few days later, one of Trump’s senior advisors suggested that the wall could be paid for by a tax on Mexican drug cartels, or people who had migrated to the U.S. unlawfully. This raises the question: If the Trump administration can locate and tax illegal drug traffickers, why doesn’t it imprison them? And this doesn’t even take into account the absurd notion that undocumented migrants—many of whom are poor—could pay for a $15 billion wall through taxes.
The demand for Mexico to pay is among the most inane proposals in the history of modern U.S. diplomacy. It would be political suicide for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to accept it in any form. His own approval rating stands at an historic low of 12%, part of which stems from his weak response to Trump’s aggressive attacks on Mexico and Mexican migrants.
Since Trump does not appear to actually expect Mexico to directly pay for the wall, it’s worth examining his other motives in potentially provoking a crisis with a key neighbor, ally, and trade partner.
Strengthening his hand
Trump could be taking a page from the playbook of former U.S. President Richard Nixon. In 1969, Nixon launched Operation Intercept, which mandated a vehicle-by-vehicle inspection of all vehicles crossing from Mexico into the U.S. and virtually froze the border, causing panic in Mexico. The extreme measure brought the Mexican government to its knees in 10 days.
Nixon had a clear objective: He wanted to force the Mexican government to cooperate in his new “War on Drugs,” particularly through aerial fumigation. He won, but not without doing lasting damage to the binational relationship.
The question for today is: What does Trump want? One possibility is that he’s seeking leverage in an already-announced renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into effect in 1994. The trade agreement between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada consolidated the age of North American economic integration, lowering production costs and accelerating the offshore production and increase in imports that Trump claims have hurt American jobs.
But if Trump is seeking to inhibit or punish job outsourcing, he should negotiate universal labor standards with American companies, not threaten the Mexican government. Moreover, integrated production chains characterize modern industry, and while they have had negative impacts on workers in all countries, they cannot be dismantled overnight without dire consequences for workers, companies, and consumers.
If Trump seeks measures to unilaterally eliminate Mexican export competition (the famous $60 billion dollar trade deficit he often cites, by the way, is nearly $15 billion dollars lower than the deficit with Germany and far below that of several other countries) he will provoke a trade war, international opprobrium, widespread distrust, and a rash of World Trade Organization complaints. Even Peña Nieto, who has bent over backwards to reconcile with the Trump administration, will be obliged to retaliate in kind.
Although Trump states defiantly in his campaign document, “Pay for the Wall,” “Mexico needs access to our markets much more than the reverse, so we have all the leverage and will win the negotiation,” there is actually no “win” in this situation.
Firing up the base
Trump likely wants keep Mexico-bashing in the news and mobilize his base of supporters for further measures against migrants and Mexican trade and investment. The mass deportations and detention programs will cause large protests around the country. The more Trump can convince his supporters that Mexicans are a threat to the American way of life, the more they will defend these measures. This strategy deepens the racist and xenophobic overtones of the campaign that helped him get elected.
Trump might also be seeking an increased Mexican crackdown on its southern border with Guatemala and enhanced security cooperation. Before Trump took office, the Obama administration virtually deputized Mexico to detain and deport Central American migrants on its border with Guatemala through a partnership known as the Merida Initiative. Peña Nieto has proposed including the future of this program in negotiations, because he recognizes it as a bargaining chip with Trump. But it does not seem to be a top priority at the moment, at least not enough to justify provoking a diplomatic crisis.
There is no plan
The final possibility is that Trump may simply be acting irrationally. The president’s executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim countries, which instantly provoked federal court injunctions, shows the administration’s lack of political or judicial vetting processes, much less planning for the short- and long-term consequences of Trump’s decisions.
The standoff with Mexico could be just another act of bravado from a narcissistic president who prefers sticks to carrots, and wields executive power as an extension of his personal ego. In this scenario, all bets are off, and one of the nation’s most critical international relationships has been plunged into crisis without an exit strategy.
Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy.