After the abrupt cancellation of the first scheduled meeting between Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and US President Donald Trump in January, the deep security and commercial ties that bind the two countries felt the heat as bilateral cooperation reached new lows.

In trying to search for what the future holds for this crucial relationship, Adrienne Arsht senior vice president for Strategic Initiatives Director, Peter Schechter, and Latin America Economic Growth Initiative Director, Jason Marczak, spoke with José Cárdenas, a former senior foreign-policy adviser at the State Department, National Security Council, and USAID, and Julio Madrazo, a partner of De la Calle, Madrazo, Mancera (CMM), Board Member of the Mexican Foreign Affairs Council (COMEXI ) and of the Aspen Institute of Mexico, to discuss the still unfolding situation. Can common ground be found between the two administrations? What needs to change? And, what does this mean for the Mexican presidential elections in 2018? Listen to the full conversation here.

As Cárdenas and Madrazo both iterated during the call, hasty foreign policy moves could undermine two decades of economic, political and security cooperation between the two North American neighbors. This is a history that that should not be taken for granted. The United States-Mexico relationship had been much more contentious until the 1980s, and it is only recently that both countries enjoyed the perks of economic and military security brought by amicable ties. 

The experts agreed that in order to move past the current diplomatic hurdle, the administrations of both countries need to come together to discuss all agendas at play between them and not focus on single issues. That should be done in an official setting, far from the public arena until the discussion can advance.

These recent events also hint to another item on the Trump Administration’s agenda, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The speakers emphasized that 5 million American jobs depend on NAFTA. They also mentioned that although the United States is in an overall trade deficit with Mexico, it actually operates under a surplus in key sectors of the US economy, including agriculture and services. 

Nonetheless, Schechter, Marczak, Cárdenas and Madrazo all agree that NAFTA needs to be modernized to maintain relevancy and cross border cooperation. NAFTA was “conceived and constituted in a different era”, says Cárdenas. Written prior to the age of the internet, NAFTA is lacking articles and provisions from making it a contemporary and robust trade agreement. The solution, according to Madrazo, can be found by implementing the technological aspects from the arduous and ambitions Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, a trade agreement that the Trump administration recently removed the United States from. However, as Marczak pointed out, in reforming NAFTA it is important to consider the other member nation – Canada. 

The reasoning behind the US Administration enhanced pressure on Mexico was one of the topics addressed during the call. Cárdenas affirmed that although Trump’s actions may seem chaotic, “he has his objectives, he has his goals.” He believes that “Trump is more focused and knows what he is doing from a political standpoint and where he wants to take the United States. [It is not] as simple as setting up Mexico as a punching bag in order to intimidate other countries.” Cárdenas also pointed at domestic economic reasons as the source of concerns toward Mexico, and speculated that perhaps Trump sees the Mexico-US trade relationship and its potential problems as less important in a world in the midst of an automation revolution.

The conversation also revolved around Mexico’s next presidential election, scheduled for 2018. With record low approval ratings, President Peña Nieto could use Mexicans negative opinion of Trump to boost his party in the polls. However, as Madrazo suggests, it “may not be enough to turn the electorate around.” Cárdenas, in turn, suggested that the inflammatory politics produced by the recent Trump-Peña Nieto fallout, coupled with a sagging domestic economy, have the potential of creating a “combustible mix” in Mexico. If the situation between the United States and Mexico is not resolved before next year’s the election, independent candidate Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador has the most to gain. Indeed, Lopez Obrador has the potential to “whip up that [anti-Trump] national sentiment and make a convincing case to the electorate that traditional parties have failed the county and it is time for something new” says Cárdenas. 

Going forward, the suggestion for the Mexican government to diffuse the tension is to approach the White House and negotiate a full bilateral agenda. As Schechter stated, in these instances, “tone is as important as substance.”