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Mary Sanchez: Mexico needs to keep peace with Trump

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Mary Sanchez, Syndicated Columnist

Among the qualities any good ambassador must have are manners, dignity and grace. These are especially important for an emissary to an unruly and a less-than-respectful "frenemy" power.

Mary Sanchez
Mary Sanchez

Although Geronimo Gutierrez Fernandez, the Mexican ambassador to the United States, would never say so, in addition to the usual diplomatic politesse he has another reality to deal with: In Mexico's relations with the United States government, Mexico needs to the adult in the room.

After all, it can't be assumed that President Donald Trump will take the high road. Trump has far too much to gain with his base by picking at the wounds he opened during his campaign, when he portrayed Mexicans as a source of woe for the U.S. and Mexico as bent on willfully harming the U.S. in trade deals and shunting the worst among its population northward.

It's all part the president's "bad hombres" worldview. Trump calls the North American Free Trade Agreement the "worst trade deal ever made," an argument he made nonstop citing the U.S. trade deficit, but he conveniently overlooks the fact that Mexico is our nation's third largest trade partner. The agreement has been largely beneficial to all parties, and to unravel it would cause serious disruption.

But to Trump, the art of getting a better "deal" is first to vilify and threaten your counterparty.

A career diplomat, Gutierrez terms the present White House "an atypical administration."

He knows. Mexico isn't going anywhere, the deep connections of culture, trade and personal relationships will not evaporate overnight. Similarly, there is much cooperation on issues that aren't reflected in presidential tweets. Bilateral work to disrupt the drug trade and terrorist threats are good examples.

An economist, Gutierrez presses the need for a "rational conversation." The ongoing renegotiation of NAFTA needs such an approach. Trump's threats to pull the U.S. out of the deal altogether (which he can legally do with the stroke of a pen) are serious, and the Mexican government takes them seriously.

A U.S. pullout, Gutierrez said in a recent interview as he toured the Midwest, would be among the "clear red lines" that Trump might cross.

"If that happens, Mexico will not sit down at the table again," he said.

Canada's foreign minister has also recently remarked on the "winner takes all" approach to the meetings so far, set to resume in Mexico City in late November.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross replied to the foreign minister's comment to Bloomberg, "We're asking two countries to give up some privileges that they have enjoyed for 22 years, and we're not in a position to offer anything in return, so that's a tough sell."

Economists point out that the U.S. trade deficit with Canada and Mexico represents less than 10 percent of its total trade deficit, and is largely a function of saving and investment decisions. Details. Details.

Yet it is amid such zero-sum saber-rattling that Mexico and Canada are trying to hold their own, stressing that more U.S. manufacturing jobs have been lost due to automation than to offshoring production.

Another factor to consider is that an economically stable Mexico benefits the U.S. beyond exports/imports. Mexico, Gutierrez said, has to own up to the fact that the country's lack of prosperity is what drove high rates of undocumented migration northward during previous decades.

That only supports the point that a stable Mexico is in U.S. interests. Things will go better if we collaborate as friends, not contend as foes. That's true even when it comes to thornier, seemingly inevitable conflicts.

Consider the "big beautiful wall" Trump envisions on the border. Border security is nothing new.

Nor is it necessarily opposed by Mexico. Gutierrez points out that under President George W. Bush, more than 550 miles of border fencing was erected. But that project, which began in the early 1990s in San Diego, wasn't made out to be a personal attack against Mexicans.

Under Trump, conversations that should be about policy -- including flexible immigration laws that allow Mexican workers to fill certain labor needs -- devolved into chauvinist diatribes.

There are limits to what Mexico will put up with from Trump. And our southern neighbor will continue to manage its own interests, whatever challenges may be presented by the vacillating and eccentric current administration.

It will do its best to keep the peace, because someone has to. For this phase of our relations, too, shall pass.

MARY SANCHEZ writes for The Kansas City Star. Her column is distributed by Tribune Content Agency.