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ISSUES IN INTERNATIONAL POLITICAL ECONOMY
September 2001, Number 21
THE EVER-CHANGING U.S.-MEXICO RELATIONSHIP
I have written extensively on U.S.-Mexican relations during the past several decades, perhaps more than on any other theme. I have a daughter who was born in Mexico and feel warmly toward the country. My research, visits, conversations, and analysis provide many insights-even if imperfect knowledge. Examination of this relationship became a national pastime last week when President Vicente Fox made a highly publicized state visit to the United States.
The overused clich? was that the United States had a love/hate attitude toward Mexico. This is too strong; the emotions never ran that deep. The duality of feeling was more like hope/disdain-a wish that Mexico would deal with its deep economic, social, and political problems, and at the same time an attitude of condescension that Mexico never seemed to accomplish this. The Mexican duality toward the United States was something on the order of ambiguity/mistrust-should we embrace the United States or keep our distance out of wariness that Mexico might be betrayed at crucial moments?
Fox, in his speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on September 6, said that the moment of change, particularly for Mexico, was when NAFTA came into existence, at the beginning of 1994. I agree with this judgment. NAFTA was the most profound agreement between the two countries in the twentieth century. NAFTA, in my view, used trade and investment as the route to long-term political embrace; and the extent to which this will go will be unknown for perhaps 50 years. I must confess that I had little sympathy with the NAFTA naysayers in either country because I felt that they lacked a sense of what neighborly relations could be-but instead focused on their particular interests or foibles, and not on how two countries thrown together by fate could and should handle their neighborly destinies. The obscenity of a rich United States coexisting with a poor neighbor is unhealthy for both, because it spawns such problems as undocumented migration, and is perpetually destabilizing.
The U.S. reception of Fox was remarkably warm. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) brought NAFTA into existence, but it was Fox's victory in the July 2, 2000, presidential contest that alerted the U.S. audience that our neighbor to the south was transforming itself into a democracy. A troubled neighbor, an important economic partner, and a country that had shed much of its political authoritarianism-Fox embodied all these attributes.
Yet, considerable condescension toward Mexico remains in the U.S. body politic, as it does in popular sentiment. The congressional vote to prohibit Mexican trucks from crossing the border to deliver goods throughout the United States-despite a commitment to do so in an agreement approved by Congress-was an illustration of this. Domestic politics was more important to the U.S. Congress than the Mexican relationship, more important than keeping the U.S. word. If, instead of Mexico, this had been a disagreement with Canada, or the United Kingdom, or Germany, would Congress have acted as it did? I doubt it. Will Congress give up its insistence on certifying Mexico's behavior in the fight against drug use? It has not until now, despite the evident futility and resentment caused by this practice. Maybe now it will. If so, chalk this up to Fox.
The central theme of Fox's speeches in the United States was "trust." Trust your neighbor, and he will return this sentiment. Punish your neighbor to force him to change his ways, and you will earn no trust in return-nor is he likely to change his ways. Fox is correct that this trust does not yet exist in full measure in either direction. The reason for this goes back to another clich? about the relationship-that it is asymmetric. Mexican analysts invoke asymmetry constantly. Economic asymmetry explains migration from Mexico to the United States; power asymmetry explains the fluctuating U.S. attention on Mexico; democratic asymmetry explains the differences in the administration of justice; historic asymmetry explains the mutual mistrust. One could continue endlessly; the asymmetry is real and it has consequences.
The United States is most comfortable in its relations with other developed countries, those that have reasonably comparable per capita incomes. Maybe some day Mexican incomes will approach those in the United States, but not for many years. The United States has close relationships with countries that share some of the burden of common defense. This is unlikely for Mexico. Achieving truly mature relations will require other accomplishments: more trade and investment; sustained economic growth in Mexico; a deepening of democracy; a reduction in Mexican corruption; an equitable system of justice; and an end to the need for Mexicans to emigrate, in violation of U.S. laws, to support themselves and their families. A superior/dependent situation does not permit a dialogue of equals.
The two countries' separate but intertwined histories have left a legacy of hangups on both sides. Historical experience explains much about Mexico's drive to retain its economic and political independence, and why it chose to remain distant from its powerful neighbor. This exercise in limited engagement was reciprocated in the United States; Mexico was seen as a troublesome neighbor, a poverty-ridden country that could not provide jobs for all of its people but instead had to rely on the escape valve of migration to the United States. It was not too many years ago (1996) that a best-seller was entitled Bordering on Chaos.
Fox did not initiate the changes taking place in Mexico. Many initiatives, in addition to NAFTA, preceded his election. Mexico had long had a policy of avoiding the discussion of migration issues with the United States, but then undertook a joint study of this subject under President Ernesto Zedillo that was published in 1998. The electoral laws that permitted Fox's election obviously had to be enacted beforehand. The conclusion that engagement with the United States was preferable to distancing it was made before Fox. Fox owes a deep debt of gratitude to Zedillo for relinquishing the leadership without a financial crisis, something that had eluded PRI presidents for some 30 years.
What the Mexican leadership concluded before Fox was that economic independence was a charade given the limited size of the Mexican domestic market and the inability in any event to escape the consequences of U.S. economic policies. I have long believed that the most important U.S. actions toward Mexico are taken without regard to their effects on Mexico-actions like raising and lowering the federal funds rate and managing the U.S. economy so as to achieve growth. It is the level of this growth that rejects or stimulates imports from Mexico. When NAFTA was negotiated the Mexican assessment was that national cultural identity need not be sacrificed in the pursuit of economic development. Indeed, without this development, a majority of Mexicans would have been excluded from the bulk of the nation's rich cultural offerings.
The United States responded positively to the Salinas proposal for free trade under the first President George Bush. Presidents Bill Clinton and now George W. Bush have pushed this engagement further. The laggard has been the U.S. Congress because of a variety of parochial interests, and an inability to shed long-ingrained habits of disrespect for Mexico.
Fox will not achieve all he seeks immediately-especially on U.S. immigration policy. Maybe never, but I doubt this. What his visit demonstrates is that he came to power at a propitious time, found a sympathetic ear in the person of the U.S. president, and has moved the negotiating agenda forward. This is not the end game-that must occur internally in each of the two countries-but it is a giant leap.
Issues in International Political Economy is published by the William E. Simon Chair in Political Economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary.
CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author.
? 2001 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.