February 14, 2001

February 14, 2001 | Commentary on Foreign Aid and Development

U.S.-Mexico Relations: On the Right Foot at Last?

President George W. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox have a welcome opportunity to put U.S.-Mexico relations back on track when they meet Friday in Mexico. It's a relationship that has been neglected for too long.

Mexico is not the uncooperative neighbor many Americans once believed it to be. Thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement, it has doubled its trade with the United States, from $76 billion in 1992 to $157 billion in 1997. This expansion enabled Mexico to weather the peso crisis of 1995 and pay off its U.S.-held debt in 1997-three years ahead of schedule.

It also has undergone a remarkable political transformation. The once-powerful Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) no longer holds a majority in both houses of Congress. Fox, himself, is the first "non-official party" candidate to win the presidency in seven decades. He has asked his cabinet to swear to a code of ethics-the first in Mexico's history. And the courts are now more independent of the presidency.

Given these encouraging developments, it's time to end the unofficial U.S. policy of "benign neglect" toward Mexico-the approach that prevailed throughout the second term of the Clinton administration. A strong, democratic, economically free Mexico clearly is in America's interest. And improved relations between the two countries can help smooth Mexico's road to further reform. Here are some small steps the two presidents can take to get the new era of U.S.-Mexico relations off on the right foot.

Start with the 2,000-mile common border. President Bush should commit to improving conditions at this most visible link between the countries. Most of the increased trade between the United States and Mexico travels by truck, and, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office, the infrastructure is cracking under the strain. In addition, poor coordination among U.S. agencies keeps our border checkpoints from being fully staffed. The result: mile-long traffic jams and more air pollution. President Bush should require U.S. agencies that operate along the border to get their acts together and fix these problems.

Second, President Bush should promise President Fox that he will work with Congress to reform entry procedures so that Mexican migrant laborers can enter the United States more safely. Until President Fox's educational and economic reforms have a chance to boost employment internally, Mexico needs a safety valve to provide work for its underemployed labor force.

For his part, President Fox could pledge more help in the drug war. Mexican officials have become more cooperative, but interdiction efforts still have a long way to go. Drug trafficking is up, and two out of every three kilos of Colombian cocaine reaching the United States go through Mexico. Bush should ask Fox to cut the connection between Colombian suppliers and the Mexican drug cartels-a tall order, since Fox first must reform his country's judiciary and police. But Bush can help by offering technical assistance to root out corruption and improve professionalism in Mexican courts and police agencies.

Finally, the United States should welcome Fox's desire to advocate democracy and human rights throughout the Western hemisphere. Recent reforms-indeed, Fox's election itself-have given Mexico a new moral platform from which to speak. U.S. officials can't expect Mexico's foreign policies to duplicate our own-to suddenly break relations with Cuba, for example. But Fox's strong voice will be key to building freedom and prosperity in Central and South America and reducing the pressures on the citizens of this region to migrate to Mexico-and then to the United States.

Bush's interest in working with Fox can open the door to a new era of U.S.-Mexico cooperation. A frank exchange between both leaders will blunt the possibility of either nation making unreasonable demands and build the foundation for a good relationship. In President Fox, we finally have a friend to our immediate south who has enunciated a strong desire to spread democracy and encourage economic growth-which means it's time for some "benign" and certainly more active engagement.

Stephen Johnson is a policy analyst for Latin America at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy institute

About the Author

Stephen Johnson Senior Policy Analyst
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

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