Whatever the ultimate outcome of President Trump’s conflict with Mexico, one consequence is already clear. He has undermined one of the most impressive U.S. foreign policy achievements of the past three decades. Mexico used to be a reflexively anti-American country, radical and resentful toward its powerful neighbor to the north. But starting in the 1990s, through the careful efforts of leaders on both sides of the border, that changed. Until Trump came along.

For much of its modern history, Mexico almost defined itself in opposition to the United States. It saw itself as a developing country that was oppressed by its high-handed, imperialist neighbor. And this image did have some basis in reality. From the Mexican perspective, the United States’ relations with it were characterized by exploitation and annexation. After a failed attempt to purchase what is now California, Arizona, New Mexico and other Western states, President James K. Polk invaded Mexico and essentially seized this territory. In 1853, the United States acquired even more Mexican land in the Gadsden Purchase. In total, the United States got roughly half of Mexico’s land.

After that, and well into the 20th century, Washington’s approach toward Mexico was usually aimed at protecting the interests of large U.S. corporations, especially its oil companies that had tried to operate in Mexico with minimal interference from local authorities. All this bred a political climate of defiance and resistance toward Washington that made cross-border cooperation difficult on almost any issue. As Shannon K. O’Neil observes, Mexico was one of the few countries that rejected U.S. assistance through John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress program.

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