The Deep Significance and Importance of NAFTA
As with so many things, the President is demonstrating that he really doesn't know what he is doing.
Dan Drezner has a column (The missing dimension in the NAFTA debate) that is worth a read and hits on something I have been thinking about in the context of US-Mexicans relations:
An increasing fraction of America’s voting population has no memory of pre-NAFTA Mexican American relations. It would be safe to describe them as “prickly.” The biggest reason for negotiating NAFTA was for the Mexican government to lock in domestic economic reforms that rejected import substitution policies and integrated the country into the global economy. One of the knock-on effects was for Mexico to transform from a one-party state to a real democracy. The result is a country that views itself as North American.
This is absolutely the case. Indeed, go back and read that paragraph again and contemplate the significance of the situation. Many may assume that US-Mexican relations have always been warm and based, if anything, on proximity and shared history. However, this is not the case. For one thing, that shared history has a lot of contentious features, not the least of which being the fact that in the 1840s the US fought a war with Mexico over the border with Texas and ended up getting most of what is now the western United States. If you don’t think something like that doesn’t leave a lingering bad taste for decades, you haven’t read much history. If we set aside the 19th century and we were to go back about a century from today we would find a conflict-ridden relationship between the US and Mexico (which might have something to do with US military incursions into Mexico during the Revolution). Beyond that, the bulk of the rest of the century was one of semi-distrustful (if not fully distrustful) tolerance. Yes, there was some trade, but Mexico had a very inward-looking economy and the US was distracted by the Cold War. It was not until the Bush administration’s talks with the Salinas government that this began to change. It is not hyperbole to suggest a major contributor to Mexican democratization was NAFTA because the Mexican government made the decision to liberalize and look outward after a truly disastrous 1980s (a.k.a., “The Lost Decade”).
If the US really does withdraw from NAFTA it will be setting back, and perhaps derailing, a very friendly and important relationship with our neighbors to the south. And, ironically, make the immigration problem that trumpistas are so focused on much, much worse (because a bad Mexican economy means looking to el Norte for jobs).
Drezner points to a piece in National Review by José Cárdenas which rightly points out the following regarding domestic Mexican politics:
Economic trouble in our southern neighbor should be on the radar screen of any U.S. president, but what makes the current situation that much more dangerous is that the person who stands to gain most from the turmoil is Mexican opposition politician André Manuel López Obrador, a left-wing populist rabble-rouser in the mold of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. López Obrador is running for the Mexican presidency (for the third time) in 2018.
In the past, AMLO, as he is known, has tested the patience of Mexicans with his demagoguery and penchant for mobilizing people in the streets, disrupting daily life. However, his strident rhetoric, appeals to nationalism, and rejection of politics as usual in Mexico may represent just the kind of leadership that Mexicans want to confront the Trump phenomenon. Over the course of the past year, AMLO’s approval numbers have been steadily improving. A recent poll showed 27 percent of Mexicans supporting his National Regeneration Movement, against the rightist National Action party, with 24 percent, and Peña Nieto’s PRI (Institutional Revolutionary party), with 17 percent.
The degree to which AMLO is a Chávez may be debatable, but I can guarantee that he would not be a positive political force as far as the US is concerned. AMLO came within a whisker of winning the presidency in 2006 (he lost by about half a percentage point), so the notion that he could win the presidency, especially in tumultuous times, is a reasonable one. This is especially true since Mexico awards the presidency by plurality and there are often three strong contenders (the US and Mexico both would be advised to do to a popular vote with a majority requirement, just something else the two countries have in common).
As with so many things, the President is demonstrating that he really doesn’t know what he is doing and his ignorance could cause some serious problems for the long haul.