Few things have united Mexicans in recent times quite as much as their loathing for the bombastic and grotesque candidate Donald Trump, nor their profound disbelief that their president, Enrique Peña Nieto, could be so foolish as to invite Mr Trump to Mexico.
Their hatred of Mr Trump is well-founded, but they are mistaken to think that by excluding him from participating in face-to-face talks with their president they have somehow defended Mexican interests, or pride.
They have criticized that there was an invitation in the first place, that Peña Nieto did not use the occasion to excoriate Trump, and that to invite the monster into the home was an act of treason, in the words of director Alejandro González Iñárritu.
All three criticisms are poorly conceived. Of course, Peña Nieto could have avoided inviting either candidate, but it’s not uncommon for foreign leaders to meet with US presidential candidates, as Gordon Brown did when UK Prime Minister in 2008. And consider this test – what reaction would Mexicans have given had it been Hillary who visited instead of Trump? Assuming the reaction would have been positive, it’s hard to sustain the argument that campaign invitations are inappropriate.
Did Peña Nieto miss an opportunity to lambast Trump in the joint press conference afterwards? Perhaps his words could have been stronger, but he did lecture Trump at length on the benefits to the relationship for both parties, and the need for cooperation where there are shared challenges. And every notch higher that the rhetoric goes now, so the chances of serious conflict in a Trump presidency later (and perhaps the stronger Trump’s support becomes back home).
The third rationale fails to separate schoolyard taunts from the need to deal with foreign leaders whose values and practices affect us (or may affect us). There is a difference between the person and the office. American diplomats know this, but most Mexicans, with little knowledge of or experience in the wider world, have yet to discover it. They can only discern the words.
There are leaders in the world whose records of human rights abuses and interference in their neighbors’ affairs are outrageous. Most of them do not taunt us openly. Does that make them acceptable? We can reject their actions – and should – at the same time that we work to change their regimes (and promote our own national interests). Statecraft requires action, and that leaders interact.
To put this more concretely, imagine a national leader somewhere in Central America whose treatment of indigenous groups violated human rights standards and potentially threatened regional stability – but who spoke kindly about Mexico. Would this person be welcome in Mexico because they said nice things?
Mexico is treading a fine line – it has deep interests at stake in the outcome of the US election, and it needs to make that clear, while at the same time not interfering in the electoral process. In the longer run there is an urgent need to promote Mexican interests and image in the US.
There are two Mexicos – the educated, cosmopolitan, and internationally-connected one, and the one which is traditional, hidebound, and parochial. One accepts that Mexico has responsibilities and opportunities in the world, and the other one still has its head in the sand. One takes seriously the need to promote and protect Mexican interests, and the other would shut its eyes and hope for the best.