Neighborly Relations After a Contentious Election

The outcome of the Presidential election leaves vast unpredictability in foreign affairs. Although many foreign leaders have already expressed their opinions publicly, the degree to which these opinions will affect diplomatic relationships remains to be seen. In the context of so many unknowns, foreign policy specialists can at best speculate the implications for the United States’ global standing in the years to come.

This presidential campaign cycle, though unprecedented in every regard, follows a rather interesting trend in regards to the United States’ relationship with Mexico. U.S.-Mexico bilateral relations have always been complicated. It is a relationship simultaneously characterized by neighborly regard and deeply ingrained suspicion. A contentious history continues to influence how each country regards the other, and their proximity in conjunction with vast power asymmetry creates a unique dynamic for foreign policy analysis.

Perhaps the most interesting feature, however, is the U.S. tendency to classify issues pertaining to Mexico as issues of domestic policy. This election cycle, issues that affect both countries such as immigration were touted as pillars of candidates’ domestic platforms (particularly by president-elect Trump), suggesting the U.S. alone should determine the path forward. Scholars argue that this dynamic complicates the efficacy of state-to-state relations. Rather than work bilaterally towards a solution, the U.S. treats these issues as domestic policies to be approached unilaterally. Furthermore, the influence of non-state actors such as civil society and NGO advocates in determining these “domestic” policies, particularly in the context of public discourse and eliciting votes, is increasingly difficult to confine. The bilateral relationship is not bound by formal diplomatic relations and is rather generated largely by public opinion – a reality that may be tirelessly tested in the coming years.

Donald Trump in his iconic ‘Make America Great Again’ hat. Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore, Flickr Creative Commons

Mexico’s inclination to establish an identity separate from its northern neighbor, while remaining economically bound in significant ways, may also be challenged by president-elect Trump’s campaign promises. Proclamations to end or restructure NAFTA and build a wall funded by the Mexican government puts Mexico at a crossroads in its relationship with the United States. The American public has, at the very least, de facto supported (and in some cases encouraged) these positions. When a powerful neighbor’s president is elected on promises to actively deconstruct an existing relationship, rapport begins to unravel right alongside economic agreements. Some may argue that this ability of one country to be so drastically affected by the domestic policies of another is the price to pay for economic integration – at a cost that ultimately pales in comparison to the economic gains. The extent to which these tenants influenced Trump’s success cannot be quantified; it seems telling, however, that much of the backlash that propelled Trump to victory stems from the perception that Mexico is to blame for lack of economic and employment opportunities.

Regardless of what ultimately comes of the bilateral U.S – Mexico relationship, this period of uncertainty poses its own sort of danger. As markets rapidly fluctuate and investors wait with caution, Mexico could experience some economic consequences long before any of Trump’s proposed policies are implemented. The surge in nationalist rhetoric as a reaction against government mistrust is a sentiment being echoed the world over. Several news agencies have suggested, based on interviews, that many Mexican citizens respect Trump’s nationalism as a gesture of the lengths he will go to for the people of his country, a sentiment precluded by the perceived corruption in their own. Moving forward, perhaps the U.S. – Mexico relationship will illuminate the bilateral effects of nationalism in an increasingly globalized world.



Lee Birdwhistell is a Master’s candidate at the Patterson School of Diplomacy, majoring in Development and International Organizations. She is interested in human rights, human migration and refugee rights, and the politics of development in Central and South America. She hopes to pursue a career in an international non-profit organization that specializes in research and advocacy in these areas.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *