Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


JULY 2002

Vincente Fox's triumph in Mexico's presidential election is more than a victory for democracy in this neighboring country: it is also a significant success story for American foreign policy over the last twenty years.

Two decades ago U.S.-Mexican relations were at low ebb after President Jimmy Carter visited Mexico City and listened to a public blast against the United States delivered by President Jose Lopez Portillo. His tough rhetoric reflected the long-held resentment of the Mexican people against the immigration and trade policies of the United States, a sentiment reflected in the anti-American rhetoric of Mexico's representatives to the United Nations and other forums.

Now, however, Mexico is associated with Canada and the United States in the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) and the anti-Americanism is muted. NAFTA opens Mexico's market to American exports. It has also produced significant change for the better in Mexico's political process. For the first time in seventy years, Mexico has a president who is not a member of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party).

What happened during twenty years, in Mexico and the United States, to produce this remarkable change and the resulting improvement in U.S.-Mexican relations?

New presidents with different priorities emerged in both countries in 1981-82, and this led to a reassessment of past policies. Hurtado de la Madrid, elected as Mexico's president in 1982, decided to improve relations with a new American president, Ronald Reagan, who took office the year before. With Mexico's economy was in a desperate condition, de la Madrid needed U.S. help to avoid default on his country's large foreign debts.

For his part, Reagan needed a cooperative Mexico as he pursued a tough policy toward Communist penetration of Central America, specifically in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

By the time Reagan and de la Madrid left office in 1988, U.S.-Mexican relations had turned around nearly 180 degrees from where they had been in the 1970s. Mexico finally joined the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1988, which forced its government to begin lowering the high tariff barriers on U.S. products.

Meanwhile, Canada and the United States were concluding their Free Trade Agreement (FTA), making trade between them the largest of any two countries in the world. The Common Market in Western Europe was a spur to this U.S.-Canadian drive for free trade.

In 1990 Mexico's new president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a U.S.-trained economist, asked President George Bush for a free trade agreement similar to the FTA with Canada. Bush favored negotiations with Mexico, but Canada's Prime Minister Brian Mulroney resisted because he believed Mexico's economy was not advanced enough to satisfy the tough trade conditions.

However, Mexico, Canada, and the United States agreed in 1992 to establish NAFTA with conditions that provided Mexico time to improve its economic and environmental shortcomings. When Bush lost the presidential election in 1992, it was left to Bill Clinton to shepherd this historic trade agreement through a highly skeptical Congress.

Divisions in both the Democratic and Republican parties on free trade with Mexico and other Latin American countries remain significant. Reform Party leader Ross Perot campaigned for president in 1992 by denouncing free trade, and some political experts said he drew enough Republican votes in key states to cost George Bush his reelection as president.

In 1996 Pat Buchanan, a Republican Party conservative, called for an isolationist, protectionist policy in order to protect U.S. industrial jobs. When his views were rejected by the party leadership in 1999, Buchanan left the party. Its likely nominee for president, George W. Bush, supports free trade not only with Mexico but also with other Latin American countries.

The split among Democrats is even more severe. Two of their top leaders in the House of Representatives, Richard Gephardt and David Bonior, are strongly opposed to free trade because of its negative effect, they claim, on manufacturing jobs, whose workers are championed by the powerful labor organization, AFL-CIO. In 1993 Bill Clinton needed the support of Republicans to pass both the NAFTA arrangement with Mexico. More recently, he received more Republican than Democratic votes to pass legislation giving Permanent Normal Trade Relations status (PNTR) to China.

Many observers of Mexico's political scene say that the presidential election outcome, which brings Vincente Fox and his right-of-center National Action Party (PAN) party to power in December, would not have happened without the large economic changes started by NAFTA.

NAFTA has been a mixed blessing for Mexico, however. Under the continued rule of the PRI in the 1990s, the country saw growing official corruption, a massive increase in crime and drug smuggling, and an even greater disparity in wealth between the very rich and masses of poor people.

Still, a new and politically assertive middle class is taking root in this country of 100 million people, and these voters were responsible for helping to unseat the PRI. Now Mr. Fox and his new government will be expected to bring quick changes in Mexico. These large public expectations could pose a problem for him if change doesn't occur soon.

In post-election interviews with American media, Fox challenged the United States to adopt a more generous immigration policy toward Mexicans who want to live and work in this country. He also urged the United States to be more aggressive in curtailing its domestic consumption of illegal drugs instead of putting the most of the blame blame on Mexico and other countries for not curbing the flow of these drugs into the United States.

Fox also called for the eventual establishment of a common market arrangement between the United States and Mexico, similar to the European common market for goods and services. He thinks that something similar to the European model should be applied in North America.

A note of realism needs to be injected, however, into any discussion on Mexico's future relations with the United States. Many Mexicans continue to resent the enormous influence of the "colossus to the north," and Vincente Fox, a pragmatic politician, is likely occasionally to tap into this sentiment as he steers Mexico along the path of reform and economic growth. Some pointed jabs will be made by him when he wants to get Washington's attention.

We Americans accept the reality that Canada, a friendly but independent-minded neighbor, does not simply follow Washington's lead on many foreign policy issues. We should accord Mexico a similar degree of independent mindedness as Fox steers a new course for his important country.

National pride in a democratic country is a strength, not a weakness. And Mexico, like Canada, now fits that category.

File last modified on Tuesday, 17-AUG-2004 09:30 PM EST

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