Trump, stir up Mexican populism at your own risk

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Story highlights

  • Peter Schechter: Trump has become the campaign surrogate for Mexico's leftist nationalist, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador
  • If he wins, it could jeopardize the health of the two countries' increasingly integrated economies, writes Schechter

Peter Schechter is the co-host of the foreign affairs podcast Altamar, which recently released an episode looking at the future of US-Mexico relations. He was previously director of the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Sometimes President Donald Trump seems hell-bent on turning our southern neighbor into an enemy and our nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico into a security headache. In doing so, Trump is quickly becoming the principal campaign surrogate for Mexico's leftist nationalist leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Now, on the heels of a tense and unproductive fourth round of NAFTA renegotiations, Washington's hostility has become a major political factor in Mexico.
Mexican presidential elections are eight months away. Today, polls are showing Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, substantially ahead of all others, with former National Action Party leader Margarita Zavala running second. While some analysts say Mexico will never elect a leftist leader, Donald Trump is single-handedly changing that calculation.
    Peter Schechter
    If AMLO wins, all bets are off. It's hard to overstate how damaging it would be to have antagonistic presidents on both sides of the Rio Grande. It's a dynamic we haven't seen in decades and one that would be quickly exploited by America's rivals. It would also cast into doubt the strategically brilliant play that has been 25 years in the making: creating a globally competitive powerhouse by integrating North America's economies.
    But the importance of a strong partnership with Mexico isn't just about the border or even the health of our increasingly integrated economies. It is also about the impressive security cooperation between our nations.
    High levels of intelligence sharing have allowed for strong cooperation between our anti-narcotics and anti-terrorism forces. As it stands, Mexico actively pursues and interdicts threats to US security before they reach our borders, and rarely hesitates to extradite them to face justice in our court system. Mexico also stops tens of thousands of Central American migrants on its own southern border with Guatemala. These policies depend on the continued goodwill between our countries.
    That goodwill is now in acute danger. In recent weeks, we've seen Trump threaten to withdraw from NAFTA using increasingly harsh language. We've seen him threaten to shut down the government as leverage to get funding for a border wall. And, once a disastrous hurricane season made that threat untenable, we saw the President use the fate of some 800,000 Dreamers -- close to 80% of whom are from Mexico -- as a bargaining chip for his beloved wall and a newfound hardening of immigration restrictions.
    Make no mistake: Approving funding for a border wall will catapult AMLO to first place in the polls and would inch him closer to victory. A return to hostility between the United States and Mexico will jeopardize the trade, security cooperation and intelligence-sharing that we have worked tirelessly to build over the last two decades.
    So far, the US-Mexico relationship has remained on an even keel because, since January, we could at least count on a levelheaded, if unpopular, Mexican administration to play the adult in the room. But now, AMLO is campaigning on two issues: corruption and US antagonism toward Mexico. With Mexicans fuming at current President Enrique Peña Nieto's measured, careful responses to Trump, the momentum has never been greater for AMLO, who has promised to "bring Trump to his senses."
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    Placed at risk would be the $500 billion yearly trade relationship between our two countries, which supports millions of jobs spanning every state in the United States. With NAFTA -- the driving force behind our commercial relationship -- under fire, Mexico has already begun hedging against uncertainty from the North by diversifying its trade partners, most notably with China and Russia.
    Beijing and Moscow are, predictably, more than willing to profit from our alienation of Mexico. While Trump often draws criticism for viewing everything from a zero-sum perspective, in this case, America's loss will in fact be China and Russia's gain. And there's no question that AMLO, with his hard line on NAFTA, distaste for Trump and limited appetite for negotiation, would be most disposed to letting this happen. That may be why the Spanish-language edition of Russian propaganda network RT seems to have set its sights on the candidate.
    Whatever appeal the Kremlin may see in AMLO surely goes beyond Russia's own trade interests with Mexico. An AMLO presidency, as Moscow has likely realized, would be destabilizing for Washington, creating what could be interminable distractions and structural problems for the US security community. If nothing else, the very prospect of Putin favoring an AMLO victory should be enough reason for us to stop fanning its flames.
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    The economies of our Southwestern cities are in large part sustained by easy cross-border travel and commerce. But with each provocation, we move closer to a more hostile border. With all the pressing issues around the world, turning a 2,000-mile boundary into a headache for our security and intelligence communities would be an enormous strategic blunder.
    Of course, the rise of AMLO isn't Trump's fault alone; rampant corruption in Mexico has also helped bolster his campaign as voters become fed up with "establishment" politics. But bluster from north of the border is the other part of the equation. Our relations with Mexico may be at their lowest point in generations, but it's important to remember that they can fall even lower.