The picture of Republican nominee Donald Trump as the guest of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieta — side-by-side, meeting the press — was filled with symbolism. The two men being seen together in Mexico City represented much more than a working meeting between the Mexican head of state and a candidate who might be elected the next president of the United States.
The diminutive figure of the Mexican president stands in marked contrast to that of Donald Trump towering above him, just as the United States towers above Mexico in size, population, wealth, and power. And the images of the two men together embody two contrasting cultures and histories from a shared European civilization.
The late Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet-essayist-diplomat and Nobel Prize winner for literature, described these dynamics. In an essay for The New Yorker published in September 1979, Paz wrote, “Mexico is the most Spanish country in Latin America; at the same time it is the most Indian.” And, “Mexico is a nation between two civilizations and two pasts.” About the United States, Paz observed: “[The U.S.] was born of the Reformation and the Enlightenment,” and it “came into being under the sign of criticism and self-criticism,” hence democracy.
Mexicans, in Paz’s reflection on his culture, are a people locked in their twin Spanish and pre-Columbian pasts seeking escape. The Americans, on the other hand, he described as follows:
[O]n the very edge of the now, always ready to leap toward the future. The country’s foundations are in the future, not in the past. Or, rather, its past, the act of its founding, was a promise of the future, and each time the United States returns to its source, to its past, it rediscovers the future.
Both Nieta and Trump, it seems, understand this love-hate relationship, as their respectful meeting illustrated. They seem prepared to navigate this divide with the requisite sensitivity it demands. Trump claims he excels at “the art of the deal.” This is for Trump to prove, but for the moment his meeting with Nieta might remove doubt among a majority of Americans in his abilities to be a worthy president in foreign affairs.
The issue that set the stage for Trump’s visit to Mexico City in the midst of a presidential campaign is, of course, immigration. The issue has many pressing angles in a world awash with illegal migrant workers, trafficking of human cargo and drugs, and terrorism. Again, it appears that Nieta grasps this reality, while Trump has moved it to the center of public discussion as never before.
Secure borders, with or without the wall, can make for good neighbors, and Trump seems to have gotten this message across to Nieta. The wall, as a matter of speech due to Trump, has become a symbol of greater import than the material fact itself in terms of restoring order. Putting up a wall is now less a matter of contention, again due to Trump’s insistence that it must be built. The efficacy of walls is confirmed by how well the Israelis, for instance, have done in securing their own borders against terrorism from Palestinians.
Once again, Europe’s troubles have destabilized the entire West. Twice in the last century, the sheer madness of European politics brought the United States to sacrifice her blood and treasure to save Europe and the rest of the world from bleeding to death. This time, Europe’s politics of a borderless continent became an invitation for migrant invasion from the Middle East and beyond that is unprecedented in modern history.
The Cold War ended a quarter-century ago. The West, in this period, has been caught drifting without seriously confronting what turns out to be the single most important issue of the post-Cold War world. This is about the movement of people in the technologically shrunken world of global communication and transportation. The “push” factors of failed economies and rogue states and the “pull” factors of wealthy economies of the West helped create the most immediate threat to Europe since the Cold War.
Europe is surrounded in the south and in the east by Africa and the Middle East, and people from that part of the world, if unconstrained, are ready to pour into Europe, as Jean Raspail imagined in his apocalyptic work of fiction, The Camp of the Saints. Raspail published his work more than four decades ago at the height of the Cold War, when none imagined that it could be over one day with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Raspail’s nightmare scenario of an armada of migrants setting sail from Calcutta, India and crashing upon the beaches in France has been overtaken. Instead, the daytime horrors of radical Islamist terrorism arrived in Europe’s major cities, along with hordes of migrant workers arriving hourly in a continent that fantasized it was blazing a path to the future of a borderless world.
Trump’s answer to the threat posed by movement of undocumented people is as clear-headed and simple for most people to understand as was the response of Churchill and Truman to the threat posed by the Soviet Union in Europe and beyond. “Build the wall” has the same logical consistency as remedy for the problems that multiply when the mass movement of people is unconstrained across borders as did the idea of containment in Europe along the lines over which the metaphorical “iron curtain,” in Churchill’s memorable phrase, had come down.
But Trump’s answer to this problem of mass movement of people, even though it is global in nature, is driven by his overall policy of “America first.” Since the Cold War is long over, it is also long overdue for America to rethink her priorities in terms of her national security interests. The irony, however, is that “America first” on any issue will invariably press upon others to make adjustments accordingly.
European leaders might remain mute for a while, as they quietly grasp the significance of the Mexican president and Trump together. But if Trump gets elected and goes forward with the comprehensive policy on immigration he has laid out, Europeans will follow his lead. They know full well that, once again, an American initiative offers them the means to save themselves from madness of their own making.