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


MARCH 2017

One hundred years ago next month, President Woodrow Wilson went before Congress and asked for a declaration of war against Imperial Germany. Six months earlier he campaigned for reelection by claiming he kept the country out of war. What had changed?

The first factor was Germany's resumption of submarine warfare in the Atlantic. This threatened U.S. shipping to Europe, especially to Britain which faced isolation and potential starvation. A second factor was a revolution in Russia that forced the ouster of its czarist regime and ended its war with Germany. This permitted German armies to be sent to the western front where French and British forces had suffered massive casualties in nearly three years of warfare.

The third and perhaps decisive factor in Wilson's call for war was discovery of a secret German plan to enlist Mexico in its war effort by pledging to support Mexico's hope to recover territories lost to the United States in the Mexican American War of 1848. This large territory included New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Knowledge of the German plot caused Wilson to decide that Europe's war vitally affected the U.S. homeland.

Anti-Americanism was endemic in Mexico in 1917. In that year a revolution overthrew an entrenched system that included the aristocracy and Roman Catholic Church. Since then, Mexico has been governed by a constitutional system that includes a president limited to one six-year term, a legislature and courts. In reality, Mexican presidents have limited powers to act, and corruption in the society is massive by American standards. The current president, Enrique Pena Nieto, lacks public support at home, and he is challenged by a charismatic anti-American opposition leader, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Nafta's impact

The North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994, among the United States, Canada, and Mexico, was an outgrowth of a 1988 free trade agreement between Canada and America. It was negotiated by President Ronald Reagan and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and greatly expanded trade relations between the two neighbors.

In the early 1990s, Washington and Ottawa concluded that globalization in trade was an excellent means to expand international trade, to the benefit of economies and consumers in all countries, especially underdeveloped ones. Mexico was one of these, and the Clinton administration believed that America's strategic interests included trying to bring Mexico into better alignment with U.S. foreign policy. However, Mexico's historical mistrust of Washington made it desirable that another major trading country, Canada, be part of the North American trading partnership. Canada concurred.

The terms of the Nafta agreement proved to be highly advantageous to Mexico because it enabled exporters to send products duty-free into the United States. It was also beneficial when many U.S. companies closed manufacturing plants in the United States and moved them to low-cost labor sites in Mexico, many just over the U.S. border. During the U.S. presidential campaign of 1992, a third-party candidate, Ross Perot, warned that Nafta would produce "a huge sucking sound" as jobs moved to Mexico. His opposition cost George H.W. Bush reelection and brought Bill Clinton to the White House in 1993.

Renegotiating Nafta

Donald Trump pledged during the 2016 campaign to scrap Nafta because it had caused a huge drain in American jobs. His negative comments about Mexico after he entered the White House sounded hostile to our neighbor, including his pledge that Mexico would pay to build a border wall to stop illegal entry. President Pena Nieto cancelled a planned visit to Washington for discussions on Nafta when Trump continued to criticize his country, which Mexicans viewed as insulting.

Political observers suggest that Trump was simply bolstering his negotiating position before holding negotiations on Nafta with Canadian and Mexican officials, to reduce large trade imbalances. Legislation that would tax imports from Mexico while exempting exports is under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives. This legislation does not appear to be a negotiating tactic.

Donald Trump's strong criticism of Mexico runs the risk of turning the country's politics against the U.S. and open the way for the anti-American leftist leader, Mr. Lopez Obrador, to emerge as Mexico's president in 2018. That clearly would not be in America's national interest.

File last modified on Saturday, 11-MAR-2017 8:45 AM EST

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