This year, for the first time since Ronald Reagan assailed the Soviet Union in 1980, an American presidential candidate actively campaigned against another country’s national interests. By threatening to deport all undocumented immigrants, about half of whom are Mexican; to build a wall on the Mexican border; and to rip up the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is far more important for Mexico than for the United States, Donald J. Trump made Mexico one of the central issues of the campaign.
How should Mexicans respond now that Mr. Trump has been elected?
President Enrique Peña Nieto has opted for a nonconfrontational approach. Since his embarrassing invitation to and welcome of Mr. Trump in August, he has repeatedly tried to accommodate Mr. Trump’s demands. He has accepted reopening discussion of Nafta and he has limited debate about “the wall” to who will pay for it — not whether it should be built. Mr. Peña Nieto has said he will help the Mexicans whom Mr. Trump says his administration will deport, but he has not taken a firm stand against the deportations themselves.
Mexico doesn’t have to appease Mr. Trump like this. It can fight back. It will not win every battle, but it may achieve more through obstruction, and making life miserable for the new president by increasing the cost of his anti-Mexican policies, than it will achieve by appeasement.
On Nafta, Mexico should simply tell Washington that it refuses to renegotiate the treaty. There may be reasons to create side agreements to supplement the treaty and to address issues like currency devaluation or wages. But the idea of renegotiating Nafta, as Mr. Trump says he intends to do, should be completely unacceptable to the government of Mexico.
If the Trump administration, in return, threatens to leave Nafta, so be it. Mr. Trump would be responsible for breaking up a deal that was maintained by three American presidents, five Mexican ones and six Canadian prime ministers over the past 22 years. And, despite some flaws, it has worked reasonably well.
The blame for withdrawing from the treaty would be his, and many American commercial interests and political forces, including numerous Republicans, would come to resent Mr. Trump for it. The damage to Mexico’s economy would undoubtedly be great. But a prolonged renegotiation of Nafta could potentially do even more damage, with years of uncertainty discouraging investment in the country.
Regarding deportations, Mexico can legally maintain that it will welcome back only those people who the United States can prove are indeed Mexican. This would have to take place while they were still in the United States.
Since many unauthorized Mexican immigrants have no documents, this would shift the political and economic cost of deportation from Mexico to its northern neighbor. There would be backlogs, litigation and crowded detention centers. The news media would broadcast scenes of children separated from their parents who are stuck in legal limbo.
This could amount to a humanitarian catastrophe, something no one wants to see. But the comparison cannot be with the status quo; rather, it should be with the millions of deportations promised by Mr. Trump. His supporters might not care, but many other Americans would. The outcry could conceivably force him to abandon detestable attempts at mass deportation.
And what about the wall that was so central to Mr. Trump’s campaign? It is absurd for Mexico to say it doesn’t care as long as it doesn’t pay for it. The Mexican government should fully oppose its construction. Building a border wall is a hostile act. It would send a terrible message to the world. The cost and danger of crossing without papers would rise, making smuggling even more lucrative for organized crime syndicates.
Once Mexico announces that it opposes the wall, the government should resort to every legal, environmental, political, social, cultural and regional tool to halt construction. It should mobilize binational communities in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas against the construction of the wall, until the price of pursuing this nonsensical idea becomes too high for Mr. Trump. These binational cities, like Ciudad Juárez-El Paso, should hold demonstrations and file lawsuits to try to ensure that a hostile American-built wall does not divide them.
Finally, Mexico should take advantage of California’s decision to legalize recreational marijuana. Regardless of Mr. Trump’s victory, the approval of the proposition in the United States’ most populous state makes Mexico’s war on drugs ridiculous. What is the purpose of sending Mexican soldiers to burn fields, search trucks and look for narco-tunnels if, once our marijuana makes it into California, it can be sold at the local 7-Eleven?
But with Mr. Trump’s aggression against Mexico, there is an additional reason for the country to adopt a pragmatic “wink and nod” attitude on marijuana exports to the United States: The Mexican government has no reason to cooperate with a hostile administration in Washington. Our authorities should instead simply look the other way when it comes to marijuana.
None of these positions will be risk-free for Mexico. There could be American reprisals, a backlash in some regions, and humanitarian crises. A weak and unpopular Mexican government might not resist the Trump administration’s pressure. But if business as usual is not an option, these suggestions may be. Leaders on both sides of the border should contemplate them.
Jorge G. Castañeda, Mexico’s foreign minister from 2000 to 2003, is a professor at New York University.