By Julian Hattem - 09-04-16 08:00 AM EDT
Donald Trump is promising to create a rift between the U.S. and Mexico that could dramatically alter the nation's relationship with its southern neighbor.
If elected president, Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, would introduce a series of steps that would rejigger the economic, political and social connections between the two nations.
"In a Trump administration, we're going to go about creating a new relationship between our two countries," he pledged at a rally in Phoenix, Ariz., on Wednesday, shortly after returning from a trip to Mexico.
"It's going to be a fair relationship. We want fairness."
The GOP nominee has built a large portion of his campaign on the narrative that the U.S. is on the losing end of its agreements with nations around the world and that it is under assault from immigrants crossing the southern border.
"We're in the middle of a jobs crisis, a border crisis and a terrorism crisis like never before," he said on Wednesday, hours after meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pe a Nieto.
His continued tough talk is stirring up tensions, which foreign policy experts warn will have unexpected side effects if he wins the presidency and carries through on his promises.
"Most Americans don't fully understand the extent to which Mexico affects the United States. Probably more than any other country in the world, Mexico affects the United States on a daily basis," said Mark Williams, a political science professor at Middlebury College who focuses on the U.S.'s relationship with Latin America. Williams has not been active in the presidential race.
"A new relationship under Donald Trump would be one that - I think probably to the surprise of a President Trump - it would be one that was not as smooth as he had anticipated," he said. "Simply because there are so many points of interactions and mutual effect between the two countries that can be disrupted in unappreciated ways."
Trump's focus on the U.S.-Mexico relationship has hinged in large part on the issue of immigration and fear of immigrants crossing the border illegally. To advance the issue, he has repeatedly called for building a wall along the U.S.'s southern border, which he swears Mexico will pay for. Pe a Nieto has insisted it will not.
He's also pledged an incredibly tough regime for deporting immigrants in the country illegally, though the specifics have waffled somewhat in recent weeks.
The wall and immigration crackdown would be rhetorical slaps in the face for Mexico.
But the biggest move he could take to disrupt the U.S.-Mexico relationship would be to chip away at the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), as he has promised to do, or violate it by raising tariffs on Mexican goods.
"You have to understand that we have a massive trade deficit with Mexico," Trump said on Fox News's "The O'Reilly Factor" on Thursday. "Massive - beyond belief."
Official statistics dispute the claim.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. exported nearly $132 billion worth of goods to Mexico over the last year, and it imported only slightly more: $168 billion.
Any moves that could spark a trade war with Mexico - the U.S.'s No. 3 trading partner - would have a direct impact on jobs on both sides of the border. According to the U.S.-Mexico Leadership Initiative, a program of the Chamber of Commerce business lobby, 6 million jobs in the U.S. depend on trade with Mexico.
"If these things actually were implemented, there would be a lot of people on the ground in both countries negatively impacted by them," said Christopher Wilson, the deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Perhaps more than any single issue, though, Trump's bellicose rhetoric is already having a serious effect on his relationship with the Mexican public.
A June poll by El Financiero, a Mexican newspaper, found that Trump enjoyed just a 2 percent approval rating in Mexico. Support for Trump's opponent, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, was at 74 percent.
Tough talk by Trump won't change that any time soon, which would increase the political cost for Mexican officials who might otherwise be inclined to discuss a range of issues.
Pe a Nieto, who is facing popularity troubles of his own, was hammered at home for agreeing to meet with Trump. His term does not end until 2018, so the next U.S. president will have to deal with the Pe a Nieto administration for at least two years.
"Pe a Nieto is going to have strong incentives to stand up for Mexico vis- -vis a Trump government," said Williams. "He's going to have strong incentives to try and redeem himself for the remainder of his time in office."
In the few days after his Mexico City sit-down with Trump, the Mexican president has already dialed up his rhetoric.
Trump's "postures and positions ... clearly represent a threat to the future of Mexico," Pe a Nieto said at a town hall on Thursday, a day after meeting with the GOP nominee.
Alienating Mexico City could easily lead to minor conflict on lower-profile areas on which the two countries interact, such as fishing rights, water use and sharing of intelligence.
Ironically, say critics, one possible outcome of Trump's demands is that Mexican intelligence and security agencies scale back their cooperation, making it harder for the U.S. to know who's coming across the border.
"The real issue is not being tough on the border but securing the border," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Felbab-Brown supports Clinton's campaign in her private capacity on counterterrorism issues and does not speak for the campaign.
"There is only so much one can do through brute force, which is what he's proposing. There is only so much one can do through erecting physical barriers."