A U.S. PRESIDENTIAL candidate publicly claimed that Mexico is a land of criminals, drug traffickers and rapists; rather than being forced to withdraw, he was rewarded with his party’s nomination. Is it any wonder that for generations, Mexican policymakers saw fit to define themselves in opposition to Washington? After the Mexican-American War, when the latter dispossessed the former of its vast lands north of the Rio Grande, bilateral relations historically were cool and formalistic, overlain by Mexico’s skepticism of the United States and an acute sense of sovereignty. Family and economic ties kept the relationship vibrant at local and regional levels, but the state of the official relationship was well captured by former president Porfirio Díaz, who reportedly lamented, “Poor Mexico [is] so far from God [and] so close to the United States.”
For their part, U.S. officials generally saw Mexico as a corrupt, barely democratic backwater pursuing a foreign-policy agenda contrary to Washington’s aims, particularly in Latin America and in international forums. The nation was considered to be a source of regional financial instability, ideological ferment and lawlessness, where the United States periodically felt it necessary to intervene, at times militarily, to protect its own interests.
Of course, both visions were caricatures at best—willful misrepresentations at worst. But they more or less defined the bilateral relationship until leaders in both countries came to their senses and realized that, if they were to be competitive in a rapidly globalizing world, they would need to cooperate. For Washington, that meant recognizing that it could more effectively pursue its economic and security interests by befriending, rather than antagonizing, the country sharing its two-thousand-mile southern border.
IT WAS Mexico, after the wreckage of the 1980s’ peso crisis, which first suggested a fundamentally new approach. The keystone of the effort was proposing a new economic relationship with the United States that, along with Canada, eventually became the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
NAFTA was an innovation in economic relations. It was, foremost, designed to increase trade and investment among its three parties through North American economic integration. The deal was aimed at enabling them to better compete with emerging blocks in Europe and Asia that policymakers anticipated would define global economic relations in the twenty-first century. But it was also much more. Mexicans saw NAFTA as the primary vehicle for creating an open-market democracy, a means of providing Mexico with a clear path toward political and economic modernization while institutionalizing an ever-tighter cooperative agenda with the United States.
NAFTA has been a success, even if it has not been the panacea for all ills, as its proponents suggested. Nor has NAFTA been responsible for all the problems that its detractors frequently attribute to it. Since 1993, the year prior to NAFTA’s implementation, U.S. trade in goods and services with Canada and Mexico increased from $290 billion to almost $1.1 trillion in 2014. Annual trade between the United States and Mexico has quadrupled (with Canada, it has more than doubled). Canada is America’s top trading partner; Mexico is its second-largest export market and third-largest trading partner. More than forty U.S. states count either Canada or Mexico as their top export destination. As Mexico’s economy grows, it offers new opportunities to its workers; that, coupled with the still-sluggish U.S. economy, has brought net migration flows to the United States from Mexico to virtually zero.
Perhaps more importantly, beyond tangible commercial benefits, NAFTA institutionalized a vision for North America that would have been impossible absent significant political and economic reforms in Mexico, both catalyzing such reforms and also benefitting from them. NAFTA unquestionably supported Mexico’s democratic transformation by requiring legislative and regulatory changes that might not otherwise have occurred. It empowered new economic constituencies and a growing middle class that has developed an increasingly clear political voice. Mexico’s politics are now more democratic than ever before, and the Mexican people have made clear through the ballot box and recent elections their disinterest in returning to previous ways.
What the negotiators drafted proved to be an effective framework for ordering the majority of North American trade and investment relations as they then existed, enduring economic stresses, political transitions and security crises since that time. What NAFTA left out for political purposes, however, was just as important as what it included. It did not directly address immigration. It did not focus on border infrastructure or management. It did not include energy. It excluded financial coordination. And it did not require changes to the rule of law or judicial reforms. None of these topics would have been realistic to include at the time, and perhaps not even now, but they have subsequently become controversial issues in the U.S.-Mexico relationship. As a result, NAFTA itself has unfairly and unwisely been pilloried as an agreement that only made matters worse. And if NAFTA has been bad for the United States, Mexico and Canada, should it not be abrogated rather than expanded?