Free Trade's Rough Ride

TRADE negotiators from the United States, Canada, and Mexico have found plenty to haggle over. But a final draft of the North American Free Trade Agreement is in sight, and meetings tomorrow will likely wrap up some sensitive areas: agriculture, notably US corn exports to Mexico, and computers.

The complex bargaining has navigated many shoals - Mexico's disinclination to allow foreign ownership of its oil, for instance, or the US habit of protecting domestic textile and sugar producers. Elements of protectionism will be woven into the final draft. Still, far-sighted leadership in the US, Mexico, and Canada has brought NAFTA this far.

When the negotiators' work is over, the trade pact will still face a rough ride through legislatures in both the US and Canada. Organized labor, environmentalists, and manufacturers will resist it. The US and Mexico should work together to strengthen environmental-protection standards. Unsafe working conditions and child-labor abuses can't be brushed aside in the interest of economics.

The strongest objections to NAFTA spring from fear of job loss as assembly work continues to migrate south. But there's a larger economic picture: increased opportunities for investment and selling on all sides. Many US firms anticipate billions of dollars in increased sales to Mexico.

Overstatement should be avoided. Mexico's economy is only 3 or 4 percent the size of the US economy. It doesn't represent a huge additional market. And some 80 percent of Mexico's exports already go to the US. NAFTA, to some extent, formalizes an existing interdependency.

The biggest payoffs may not be economic. NAFTA's process of economic integration could eventually embrace economies throughout Latin America. A stable Mexican economy is a long-term plus for US security.

The campaign's dynamics may tempt candidates Bush and Clinton, who favor the pact, to forget the long view. They should hold their ground.

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