US ambassador Jacobson. US ambassador Jacobson. Edgard Garrido/Reuters

Uneasy relationship will survive, but barely

Many see the departure of US ambassador as a devastating blow to U.S.-Mexico relations

After two years on the job, United States ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson has announced that she will retire on May 5, 2018 — the latest in a growing list of career diplomats to step down under Donald Trump.


Jacobson has worked in Latin America diplomacy for three decades, including in the Obama administration’s effort to reopen the U.S. embassy in Cuba. She is an undisputed Mexico expert, highly regarded for her deft touch in smoothing ruffled Mexican feathers after undiplomatic presidential tweets. Her love of Mexican culture has endeared her to the nation.

Many analysts see this seasoned diplomat’s departure as a devastating blow to U.S.-Mexico relations, which have grown tense under President Trump. His administration has sought to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, deport thousands of Mexican citizens living in the U.S. and repel “bad hombres” with a border wall.

The White House’s recent announcement that the U.S. will impose tariffs on steel imports — including on its NAFTA partners, Canada and Mexico — have spurred calls for retaliation south of the border.

Yes, these two neighbors are more at odds than I’ve ever seen in a quarter century of analyzing, teaching and writing on U.S.-Mexico relations. But I wager the bilateral relationship will survive Jacobson’s departure.

Here’s why.

Mexico and the U.S. are key commercial partners, trading US $1.5 billion in goods and services every day. Together, the two countries did more than $556 billion in business last year. Mexico is the first or second export market for 28 U.S. states and the single largest market for U.S. corn exports. Mexico is also the third main supplier of imported goods and services to the U.S.


The United States and Mexico also produce things together. Thanks to NAFTA, the U.S.-Mexico border doesn’t matter in product supply chains: an automobile may cross it as many as eight times in the manufacturing process. No other country in the world, with the possible exception of Canada, is as tightly integrated with the U.S. economy.

In other words, the U.S.-Mexico relationship will survive Jacobson’s resignation in part because markets in both countries depend on it.

Full disclosure: Roberta Jacobson is a personal friend of mine. So I can attest that she has ensured that her departure will not derail diplomatic relations.

Jacobson, a smart leader, recruited a talented team to work with her in Mexico City, led by her Deputy Chief of Mission William Duncan. Duncan, who previously served a tour in Mexico City as the embassy political officer, has been on the ground there since 2015.

Having previously worked on the international drug trade in Bogota, Colombia, he is also well-versed on counter-narcotics — always a focal point of the U.S.-Mexico relationship.

My sources say Duncan and other key foreign service officers will remain after Jacobson leaves. That should ensure the effective daily management of what is, in my assessment, America’s most complex but under-appreciated bilateral relationship.

I’m also heartened by the knowledge that the U.S. and Mexico are bound by generation of bilateral collaboration and mutual understanding. Government officials from both sides of the border have a long tradition of meeting frequently to manage such diverse policy challenges as trade, security, immigration and public health.

That won’t change with Jacobson’s departure. Tedious as it sounds, bureaucracy can ensure that calm persists beneath the surface when quarreling presidents roil international waters.

In my opinion, reports that the Trump administration will nominate Ed Whitacre to replace Jacobson are reassuring, too. A former AT&T and General Motors executive who brought the bankrupt auto manufacturer back from the brink, Whitacre should intimately comprehend the economic importance of the bilateral relationship. And, by all accounts, he is pro-NAFTA.

The 76-year-old previously partnered with the Mexican telecoms billionaire Carlos Slim, and he served on the board of Exxon Mobil back when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was CEO. I suspect Whitacre, who is a born Texan, understands the realities of U.S.-Mexico relations better than the White House.

Despite these positive signs, I do worry for the future.

I know that Ambassador Jacobson resigned in large part because she, like many of her State Department colleagues, was frustrated working in an administration that does not value the insights and advice of its best diplomats. Over the past year, Tillerson’s agency has lost dozens of mid-level officials and senior diplomats, including North Korea envoy Joseph Yun and Security Chief Bill Miller.

The gutting of the country’s diplomatic corps has, in my assessment, degraded the State Department’s ability to do its critical job, which is advising the White House and Congress on the essential nuances in U.S. foreign policy.

This has already damaged American influence worldwide and in Mexico. Two years ago, 66% of Mexicans viewed the United States favorably, according to Pew surveys. Today, two-thirds of Mexicans see the U.S. negatively. Just 5% have confidence in President Trump.

Mexican politics may also complicate future relations. President Enrique Peña Nieto has mostly refused to respond to public pressure to return Trump’s broadsides against his country because his administration sees cooperation as key to a successful NAFTA renegotiation. His restraint has offended Mexicans.

Mexico’s next presidential election is July 1. The leading contender, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is both far less patient and much more nationalist than Peña Nieto. As president, he may well see political advantage in distancing Mexico from Trump and the U.S.

The ConversationThe complexity of the enduring but endangered U.S.-Mexico relationship demands that the U.S. put its best diplomatic foot forward. With luck, Jacobson’s team will continue to do that under Whitacre’s leadership.

Pamela K. Starr is associate professor of international relations at the University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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  • DreadFool

    she is a political liability to Trumpanzism as most lefty mammals are are woossy push overs in the name of globalization while they live in comfy bubbles unaware of the consequences of their libtardly veejonz of one world and one fish feeds all dogma, Mexico will have its pejezombie, Canada has a feminista personhoodster and the good old US of A’s has Mr. T. – Now That’s Entertainment!

  • Mike S

    If, and that is a big if, Agent Orange makes it to 2020 before being tossed- he will have done monumental damage that will take years to undo. That’s what happens when gullible people get conned into putting a narcissistic, pathological lying, bigoted, vindictive, conman in office. The man is an utter buffoon…it’s like watching an endless loop of the Apprentice. When the Busk-Cheney duo got re-elected in 2004, I lost a lot of faith in the American electorate. Obama gave me hope again, but how we went from an intelligent, well read, articulate, man of integrity and great family values respected the world over who stood for ALL Americans and dug us out of the GREAT BUSH DEPRESSION to this embarrassing Warthog is unbelievable. Vladimir Trump is all about himself and understands little about history, economics, trade, civil rights, health care, a free press, or the Constitution. He is all about money and pumping up his wealthy cronies. He is all about “winning” at any cost and without a moral compass. He has no understanding of science- he is totally self-absorbed. He has no family values and is stabbing his base in the back while claiming otherwise. Slowly but surely the world is turning against us. God save us from this ostentatious gangster and his ugly family.

    • Vernon King

      Can you write something that we can understand please. Try again.

    • David Nichols

      Wallow in your TDS, you poor, pathetic purveyor of grade school level name calling…
      Actually I am inclined to think you are one of the Soros human Bots, but maybe I’ve got the “human” part wrong…

  • Mailer47

    Dear Mike and Dreadfool – Are either of you capable of making a coherent and slightly intelligent comment on policy or do you simply copy and paste your string of insults?

    • DreadFool

      the latter of a daze saints

  • cooncats

    Hey Pamela you left out one word in this sentence: ” deport thousands of Mexican citizens living in the U.S. and repel “bad hombres” with a border wall.”

    That word is “illegally.” Your deliberate omission of it speaks volumes about your bias.

  • WestCoastHwy

    It’s amazing how the Rat knows before the crew when the Ship is sinking!

    • jesus christ

      Right on, as a true sailor, those Rats defecate all other the supplies before they scurry off the boat!

  • alance

    The Mexican press is a devastating blow to U.S. and Mexican relations. They are extremely lazy and believe what they see and hear from the MSM negative press coverage in the U.S. which is 91% anti-Trump. The Mexican press regurgitates whatever they see on CNN and MSNBC.

    • Mike S

      Out of the top 100 newspapers in the US, only 6 endorsed Trump. That’s pretty hard for the Mexican press to ignore. Even though Trump lost the popular vote by 3 million, it shows the power of Fox News, Limbaugh and his AM clones, and the evangelicals. Bernie waxed Trump in every poll and lots of Bernie supporters voted for Trump because Billary was such a weak candidate and came off as a money hustler. Boy did they miscalculate.

  • Commander Barkfeather

    Regardless of your political bent, it is inevitable that the House will swing back to the Democrats, and possibly the Senate with it. When that happens the current administration will fall to the Mueller investigation. “When,” not “If.” A President Pence will be unable to fire the passions of the great unwashed as his predecessor could, and the whole thing will collapse under its own weight. In 2024, the Republicans will run Snooki at the top of the ticket.

  • Peter Maiz

    Wait untl AmMLO wins the election, havoc will surely ensue. He’s a socialist that may damage the Mexican economy easily in 6 years. The PRI has damaged its credibility beyond repair by political coorruption. Anaya from the Pan is the best solution and the PRI is busy destroying his reputation. So I guess is AMLO. When he talks he does so as if he had a case of Ahlzeimers, really!

  • softunderbelly

    It amazes me how Trump sends people over the edge. But that’s not what I want to write
    about. Regarding the NAFTA relationship of the US, Canada and Mexico. One has to ask
    how much is China exporting into both Canada and Mexico that pass through duty free
    as a NAFTA product? And no, it is not just auto parts (although that’s bad enough). Mexico
    allows it simply because it benefits Mexico. China does it because they too have paid bribes
    to the current Mexican administration.
    Since EVERYONE is on the take, why wouldn’t the Chinese do it as well? Bring the trade
    deficit down to one percent of the total trade between the two countries and there wouldn’t
    be much of a problem, would there? Canada is a similar problem although less so.
    People scream about how the drug problem is caused by demand in the US. That may be
    so but if there was a wall, it WOULD reduce demand. Perhaps not 100%, maybe not even
    50% but there would be a reduction.
    What scares the Mexican government to hell and back is the idea of having to sustain an
    additional 30% of the population with no increase in jobs or sustenance if they were to be
    returned. Can anyone spell revolution? Between the cartels and the unemployed, the govern-
    ment would fall. If you think that things are tough in Mexico now, think of what it would be like
    if thirty million deportees arrive in Mexico with no jobs. AND no way to replace 26 Billion in
    remittances. You want another nightmare? Try no tourism due to the danger.
    So, to recap Mexico is screwed with no way out. I think that the government needs to quit
    acting like a “tough” guy and figure out what they’re going to do. As I said, it is phucked!