One reason it’s so safe to be American is that we have no enemies nearby. To our east and west are nothing more dangerous than fish. Canada, to our north, has been a reliable friend — some would say our better half — since we gave up the idea of conquering it more than a century ago. Those facts are unlikely to change. During the coming years, neither sea creatures nor Canada will cause trouble for the United States. But Mexico may.
With a barrage of insults and threats, President Trump has begun the process of turning Mexico against us. This could bring the United States something it has never had: an unfriendly country on our border. In his rhetoric, Trump has unleashed the potent force of Mexican nationalism. One result of this rising defiance may be the election next year of the first truly anti-Yanqui president in Mexican history. That would threaten our dominance of the Caribbean Basin and profoundly alter our geopolitical position.
We don’t pay much attention to Mexico, but it is one of the most important countries in the world to us. Our economies are integrated, with annual trade exceeding half a trillion dollars. Our cultural ties are deep. Mexico gives the United States vital help in areas ranging from drug control to immigration — turning back 150,000 Central Americans trying to reach the United States in the last year alone. Most important, Mexico’s friendship helps keep us safe because it means we have no strategic threat on our southern border. All of this may now begin to change.
Mexicans have plenty of reasons to resent the United States. To begin with, there’s the little matter of the war in which we seized half of Mexico in the 1840s. For most of the time since then, we have treated Mexicans as subjects to be disciplined. Unlike us, however, they vividly remember aggressions we have forgotten, like our bombardment and occupation of Veracruz in 1914 and our failed military campaign to capture the rebel hero Pancho Villa soon afterward. President Woodrow Wilson declared that American intervention would continue until the Mexicans learned to “elect good men.”
Mexicans heeded that warning. For generations, guided by a corrupt political autocracy, they have chosen leaders we consider “good men.” That means, above all, leaders who accept the subservience that comes with living near a great power. The current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has dutifully followed this pattern. Suddenly, however, pro-American politics are anathema in Mexico. By describing Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers, insisting that they pay for a wall at their border, and threatening to send American troops to fight “bad hombres down there,” Trump has humiliated a proud nation. Outrage is so great that President Peña Nieto felt obliged to cancel a planned trip to Washington. Mexicans see him as a friend of the United States. His approval rating now stands at 12 percent.
Mexicans have long been frustrated at American policies that they believe intensify violence and inequality in their country. Neither this frustration nor the history of US intervention, however, has led them to adopt anti-American foreign policies. The political elite has been largely successful in tamping down Mexican nationalism, which is by definition anti-American. Trump is now reviving it.
The first beneficiary may be Mexico’s leftist firebrand, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. He lost the last two presidential elections — most recently by a narrow margin possibly provided by fraud — but suddenly he has risen from the political ashes and claimed the mantle of Mexican patriotism. In campaign speeches, he rails at Trump for treating Mexicans “like dirt,” vows to end his country’s “subordination” to the United States, and brings crowds to ecstasy by shouting, “Everything depends on strengthening Mexico so we can confront aggression from abroad!” Imagine a version of the late President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, the most outspoken anti-US leader to emerge from Latin America in this century, on our southern border.
The rising generation of Mexicans is educated, globalized, and as likely to consider itself North American as Latin American. Suddenly, thanks to Trump, it is rediscovering its anti-gringo identity. This could mean that for the first time in history, Mexico will pull away from the United States. An anti-American president, backed by a population increasingly angry at the United States, will weaken our security. During World War I, Mexico refused an offer to ally with our overseas enemies. Modern nationalist leaders may not be so deferential. They might even decide that since the United States so eagerly pushes its military power to the borders of unfriendly countries, Mexico should play the same game. Inviting a Chinese ship to refuel at the Manzanillo naval base, or hosting a Russian military delegation, would show Americans how it feels to live with provocative saber-rattling next door. It might also set off a serious US-Mexico confrontation.
Many foreign policy challenges awaited Trump when he took office. Mexico was not among them. Trump chose to create a crisis where none existed. He has set off a reaction that may bring hostile power to our border for the first time in modern history. If that happens, it will be remembered as one of his worst and most avoidable blunders.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.