WASHINGTON — So far, President-elect Bush and his advisers have talked more about Mexico than any other foreign country. Last August, Mr. Bush called for a "special relationship with Mexico" equal to that with Great Britain and Canada. The new administration has it right. Arguably, no other country in the world affects the lives of Americans as much as Mexico. And the opportunities for a productive relationship with Mexico have never been greater. Last year, Mexico made a break with its authoritarian past by holding its most democratic election ever and inaugurating opposition leader Vicente Fox as president. Mexico is also enjoying its most vigorous economic growth in two decades.
US-Mexican relations have taken a constructive turn in recent years. Economic ties have flourished. Mexico is now the United States' second-largest trading partner (after Canada) - outdistancing Japan, Britain, and Germany. In the past 10 years, US exports to Mexico have nearly tripled to more than $90 billion a year. Some 350,000 Mexican migrants each year have contributed to the US economic boom. NAFTA now provides the institutional mechanisms for addressing trade disputes - and arrangements are in place to manage other contentious issues such as migration and drug trafficking.
President Fox has already challenged the US by putting forth a series of proposals for redefining bilateral ties. The Bush administration should enthusiastically take up this challenge, and systematically engage Canada. NAFTA should be strengthened and made more agile - and perhaps, at some point, be converted into a European Union-style customs union. Opportunities also exist for greater macroeconomic coordination, and the US and Mexican governments might begin to contemplate a future in which the dollar becomes both nations' official currency.
Progress on illicit drugs and undocumented immigration is even more urgent. Washington should be dealing with Mexican migration differently from that of any other country. After all, Mexico is, far and away, the largest source of legal and illegal migration to the US. The huge US demand for low-wage labor argues for an initiative to allow Mexicans to hold jobs legally in the US. Mechanisms are needed to permit Mexicans to work with dignity in the US, enjoy benefits, labor in safe conditions, and have the right to bring their families.
It will not be easy to accomplish all this without creating new channels and inducements for undocumented migration. The Mexican government will have to cooperate with US authorities to regularize the movement of people and prevent abuses by workers or employers. Unlike any previous Mexican administration, President Fox has stated his willingness to develop such cooperative arrangements. Nothing should prevent the two governments from talking about what it would take to eventually open the border completely.
US-Mexican cooperation against drug trafficking is hard to imagine as long as the US insists on certifying other nations' counternarcotics performance, a process that provokes antagonism. The US and Mexico should promptly replace that annual process with a negotiated counternarcotics agreement. Both sides would commit themselves to antidrug measures and performance goals, and to agreed-upon procedures for enforcement, monitoring, and dispute settlement.
Finally, Bush and his advisers should seek sustained cooperation with Mexico on key regional and international issues. Mexico and the US do not have to agree always, but ample and continuing consultation should take place on the full range of issues - global as well as hemispheric - that concern both countries. Without sacrificing its basic interests or principles, Washington should work to shape its international policies in ways that can command Mexican support.
All this cannot be done quickly, but Mexico's step toward democracy will make cooperation easier.
Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society