- Reuters/Carlos Barria
- The US and Mexico canceled planning a visit between Presidents Donald Trump and Enrique Peña Nieto after a testy phone call between the two leaders.
- The latest dust-up was over Trump’s push for Mexico to pay for his promised border wall, which Mexico has adamantly rejected.
- But the incident illustrates a broader, perhaps more serious, flaw in Trump’s approach to foreign policy.
US and Mexican officials this week scrapped plans for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to visit the US after a contentious call with President Donald Trump, in which the two leaders clashed over Trump’s insistence that Mexico pay for his promised border wall.
Peña Nieto, known for his formality and carefully scripted appearances, sought to avoid public embarrassment over the wall in a potential meeting with Trump, who was unwilling to guarantee that, leading to an impasse, according to The Washington Post.
A Mexican official told The Post that Trump “lost his temper,” but US officials instead described the president as frustrated and exasperated.
The border wall – with Trump’s promises Mexico will pay for it and Peña Nieto’s insistence it will not – has become a diplomatic flashpoint, poisoning relations between the two leaders and undercutting bilateral affairs.
- REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez
While Trump and Peña Nieto agreed to have their staffs continue discussing the wall and other issues, this is the second time debate over the wall has scuttled a meeting between them.
The conflict over the wall has placed acute pressure on the US-Mexico relationship, but Trump’s broader approach to dealings with the US’s southern neighbor threatens to have a lasting, and perhaps more significant, impact on ties between the two countries.
Hours after the tense phone call, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, called Peña Nieto “to help smooth things over,” according to The Post.
Despite little foreign-policy experience, Kushner has become Trump’s point person on Mexico, managing back-channel communications that have made him “almost a shadow secretary of state,” The Post reported a few weeks after Trump took office.
Kushner is close with Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray, who is a close adviser to Peña Nieto. Videgaray resigned as finance minister after Trump’s summer 2016 visit to Mexico, which was reportedly Videgaray’s idea, but Peña Nieto appointed him foreign minister a few months later.
- Mexican Foreign Ministry
“Jared and Videgaray pretty much run Mexico policy,” a US official told The New Yorker in 2017.
Videgaray, for his part, has touted the current US-Mexico relationship, saying it’s “more fluid” and “closer than it was with previous administrations.”
The official told The New Yorker there was little room for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his department – which is withering under Trump and Tillerson – in the two advisers’ tight relationship.
“It’s all pretty much just between” Kushner and Videgaray, the official said. “There’s not really any interagency relationships going on right now. US officials sometimes learn the latest not from their own agencies, but from their Mexican counterparts – especially Videgaray.”
Videgaray’s most recent meeting with Kushner was in Washington on Valentine’s Day – while Tillerson was in the Middle East.
- Reuters/Henry Romero
The apparent primacy of personal relations over institutional ones is a warning sign, according to Greg Weeks, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
“It’s not that personal relationships per se are bad, but they’re problematic if they are the primary means of conducting diplomacy,” Weeks, who chairs the political-science and public-administration department at UNC Charlotte, told Business Insider.
Mexico will hold a presidential election in July, and Peña Nieto – who is limited to one term and whose Institutional Revolutionary Party is trailing in the polls – “will not be president much longer, so those relationships will become irrelevant (unless maybe the PRI wins, which is not likely),” Weeks said.
“If for whatever reason Kushner leaves the White House, then the same problem will arise because Tillerson and the State Department have been out of the loop and cannot fill the vacuum,” Weeks added.
Trump’s “relationship with Mexico isn’t strategically driven,” Arturo Sarukan, a former Mexican ambassador to the US, told The Post. “It’s not even business; it’s personal, driven by motivations and triggers, and that’s a huge problem. It could end up with the US asking itself, ‘Who lost Mexico?'”