Negotiating Controversial Issues

How the U.S.–Mexico negotiations collapsed before they started.

By on / Crisis Negotiations

When you’re trying to negotiate a hot-button issue, what’s the best approach to take? That was the question facing U.S. president Donald Trump as he and his administration attempted to convince the government of Mexico to fund a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, in addition to negotiating other matters of concern to both governments. The negotiations got off to a rocky start as Trump took office, in part because of a failure to coordinate a unified strategy within his administration.

A controversial meeting

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly vowed to have a wall built along the Mexican border to reduce illegal immigration and drug and weapons trafficking. Trump insisted that Mexico would pay for the wall’s construction, despite Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto’s repeated assertions that his country would do no such thing.

The campaign promise proved wildly popular with Trump’s core supporters. Trump also declared his intention to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico to make it more advantageous to the United States.

During the campaign, Mexican secretary of foreign affairs Luis Videgaray—who had gotten to know Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, through mutual friends in the financial world—persuaded Peña Nieto to invite Trump (as well as Hillary Clinton, who declined the offer) to visit him in Mexico. Trump avoided controversial statements during his visit to Mexico on August 31 but later the same day delivered a fiery anti-immigrant speech in Arizona.

Many Mexicans were outraged that the meeting with their president took place at all, given Trump’s stance on the border wall and his negative characterizations of some undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States. Peña Nieto fired Videgaray in an attempt to appease the public. Nevertheless, Videgaray remained in close contact with Kushner, even flying to New York to meet with him. And after Trump won the election, Peña Nieto rehired Videgaray, hoping once again to capitalize on Videgaray’s ties to the U.S. president-elect. Kushner, for his part, continued to work on strengthening his relationship with Videgaray.

A negotiation takes shape

U.S. presidents dating back to Ronald Reagan have met with their Mexican counterparts soon after taking office. Hoping to continue this tradition, Kushner reportedly worked hard to persuade Peña Nieto to visit Trump at the White House, according to Vanity Fair.

Kushner succeeded by communicating a less antagonistic stance toward U.S.-Mexican relationships than Trump did, according to the Wall Street Journal.

High-level negotiators from the two governments were scheduled to begin talks on trade, immigration, and border security in Washington on January 25, five days after Trump’s inauguration. Peña Nieto agreed to travel to the White House for meetings on January 31.

The negotiation’s success faced formidable odds, however. Trump and Peña Nieto were already at an impasse on funding for the wall and had diverging views on NAFTA. Mexico, however, reportedly was prepared to grant concessions to the United States on NAFTA in exchange for concessions on issues it valued, using security and migration matters to gain leverage, according to the New York Times. Yet, in a speech on January 23, Peña Nieto repeated his opposition to the border wall: “Mexico does not believe in walls. Our country believes in bridges.” He added, “The solution is neither confrontation nor submission. The solution is dialogue and negotiation.”

A January surprise

On January 25, Videgaray came to the White House for a day of private negotiations, the Wall Street Journal reports. Kushner alerted him that Trump was going to deliver a speech that same afternoon unveiling two executive orders directing the construction of a U.S.-Mexico border wall, without saying how it would be paid for, in addition to imposing other Mexican-border security and deportation measures. Videgaray and Kushner agreed that the prepared remarks could threaten their negotiations and lead the two countries’ shaky ties to further deteriorate.

Kushner then led Videgaray into the Oval Office, where they jointly lobbied Trump to signal a desire to cooperate with Mexico. The three agreed to a compromise, in which Trump would still present the executive order but stress that the United States had an interest in ensuring a strong Mexico, according to the Journal.

“I truly believe that we can enhance the relation between our two nations to a degree not seen before in a very, very long time,” Trump said in his speech.

In an interview that night with ABC News, Trump said that planning for the wall was “starting immediately,” with construction to begin within months. According to Trump, federal funds would be used to pay for the wall and then the U.S. government would seek reimbursement from Mexico. “I’m telling you there will be a payment,” Trump said, as reported by CNN. “It will be in a form, perhaps a complicated form.”

Controversy and backlash

Peña Nieto, still in Mexico, went on TV to issue an emotional statement condemning Trump’s orders. “Mexico will not pay for any wall,” he declared, and hinted that he might cancel his trip to Washington.

The following morning, Trump wrote on Twitter, “If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.” Peña Nieto then canceled, and his negotiating team returned to Mexico. The incident is said to have “maximally embarrassed” Videgaray, potentially closing off one of the few links between the two governments, according to the New Yorker.

The next day, January 27, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that the president was considering a 20% tax on imports from Mexico to pay for the border wall. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress immediately objected, saying that American citizens would end up paying for the wall through their purchases of Mexican goods. Within hours, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus walked back Spicer’s statement, saying the proposal was just one funding idea among several.

Regrouping, and a quarantine

The same day, Trump and Peña Nieto attempted to get relations between their countries back on track with a one-hour phone call arranged by Kushner, according to the Times. Both presidents characterized the call as productive and cordial. In a statement, Peña Nieto’s office said that he and Trump had agreed not to speak publicly about the “controversial issue” of the wall.

A Mexican government official told the Times that the leaders planned to allow their relationship to “cool off” before talking further. However, they did reportedly authorize their teams to reconvene negotiations on trade, immigration, and border security. As
for the border wall and its funding, they took the issue off the table for the time being, “in effect quarantining it so that it did not contaminate conversations about other issues,” according to the Times.

Negotiating in the midst of controversy

The aborted U.S.-Mexico negotiations suggest the following lessons for dealing with the most sensitive items on your agenda:

Avoid extreme public demands. Trump’s declarations about the border wall served him well on the campaign trail but could prove hard to deliver now that he’s in office. Though there’s nothing wrong with setting ambitious goals, make sure they’re not impossibly high.

Get the timing right. Give negotiations time to take root before delivering news or expressing opinions that could disrupt them. After all, negotiators could come up with proposals that would make your plans more palatable to both sides. Keep negotiators in the loop and, above all, avoid surprises.

Don’t escalate. If conflict breaks out, try to resolve it privately. Inflammatory public statements will only escalate the dispute.

Regroup quickly after failure. If talks collapse, reach out to your counterpart and make plans to regroup after a suitable cooling-off period.

Quarantine hot-button issues. Though it’s usually beneficial to discuss all relevant issues simultaneously, there are times when quarantining a particularly controversial issue will allow you to make headway—and build trust—on more manageable matters.

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