Donald Trump’s surprise visit to Mexico on August 31 has been analyzed every which way, except for one—the one that may, in the long run, prove most important.  While every journalist and political pundit felt compelled to speculate on what Trump hoped to gain from the visit, and whether it would help or hurt him, no one bothered to consider why Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto extended the invitation in the first place.  Since Peña Nieto invited both Hillary Clinton and Trump to discuss areas of mutual concern between Mexico and the United States before the November elections, the assumption on this side of the border seems to have been that the explanation was inherent in the invitation itself.

And yet, as the Mexican press and pundits understood, such an invitation was unprecedented.  On the face of it, Peña Nieto had nothing personally to gain from sitting down with Clinton, and much to lose from sitting down with Trump.  In fact, the scorn that he received from the Mexican press, fellow politicians (including the two previous presidents of Mexico), and the Mexican public was entirely predictable.  So what could he possibly have had in mind?

Simply this: Should Donald Trump triumph in November, it would be too late for Peña Nieto to approach the incoming president on an equal footing.  His options would be limited: He could adopt the fiery rhetoric of Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón—likely to the cheers of the Mexican press and populace, but unlikely to any good effect—or he could approach Trump from a position of undeniable weakness, having to abase not only himself but the country he heads.  In either case, the outcome for Mexico would be worse than it is likely to be now.

In choosing to take the heat that he knew would come from meeting with Trump, Peña Nieto placed the long-term interests of his country above his personal interests.  And interestingly, Donald Trump seems to have understood this.  While the American media chalked up his restraint and diplomatic language after the meeting with Peña Nieto to an attempt to “look presidential,” Trump treated the Mexican president as his equal, and by extension treated Mexico herself, for the first time in his campaign, as a sovereign country that has legitimate national concerns of her own.  Without giving ground on any of his policy proposals concerning Mexico, Trump showed respect to Peña Nieto and to Mexico herself, paving the way for future negotiations that are much more likely to prove fruitful for both countries.

Should Trump win in November, Peña Nieto’s invitation may finally be seen not as a blunder, but as a moment of true statesmanship from a man who has otherwise been widely regarded as a failure in the Mexican presidency.


[Slideshow image credit: By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Donald Trump) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons]