TO NAFTA skeptics, the trade agreement would take the United States down a road trod by the Dutch and British Empires in their days of decline when financiers shifted investment abroad to more promising frontiers.
To supporters, the North American Free Trade Agreement is akin to the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Europe after World War II and benefited all sides - none more than the US itself.
Either way, many of the advocates on both sides of the NAFTA debate identify the vote Congress takes Nov. 17 on the agreement as a historic decision, setting a pattern for how the US relates to the world.
Beneath the claims and counterclaims about jobs, wage levels, and environmental enforcement under NAFTA lie different visions of how the US is faring.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger described NAFTA last week as an opportunity that comes along about once in a generation to ``do something defining'' in creating a new international structure.
``There is nothing more important in the field of foreign policy that the Congress is going to do in the rest of this decade,'' he said at a White House event Nov. 2.
``Remember,'' said President Clinton in a statement that summarizes the underlying view of NAFTA advocates, ``this is a test of our confidence.''
For Ross Perot, the stakes are just as high as he urges citizens to oppose NAFTA and ``save our country.''
Kevin Phillips, a political analyst, sees NAFTA as historically unprecedented: ``This is the first time any great economic power has tried to create a cheap labor zone on its own border in its declining period.''
One line that often divides the sides on NAFTA is whether globalization is good or bad for the American economy.
NAFTA advocates tend to see world trade as a force for stability and democratization abroad and higher standards of living at home. The US will remain economically successful as long as it remains competitively sharp by remaining open. Virtually the entire economics profession, most present and former senior government officials, and most state governors take this view.
The US showed the fastest productivity growth in manufacturing in its postwar history during the 1980s, says Henry Nau, a professor at George Washington University and author of ``The Myth of America's Decline.'' The evidence that the US can succeed worldwide is ``overwhelming,'' he says.
NAFTA opponents tend to look at the stagnant wage levels of the past 15 years and wonder if the US is really benefiting from a world economy. Some, like Mr. Perot, say that it can, but that US officials need to take a more assertive and strategic hand in protecting American interests.
NAFTA, according to politicians as diverse as conservative nationalist Pat Buchanan and liberal maverick Jerry Brown, is not a strong enough agreement in protecting American interests.
One of Mr. Clinton's problems in selling NAFTA now, says Dr. Nau, is that he is reaping the pessimism about the economy that he sowed during the last election. As Clinton argues that the economy is improving and that Americans should embrace NAFTA with confidence, ``now he faces a country that to an extent has been persuaded'' by his campaign arguments.
Where one stands on the optimism question depends partly on where one sits in the economy. NAFTA critics say that it is no accident that the professional classes and corporate management - who are best positioned to survive and thrive in a global economy -
are backing the agreement. Hourly wage-earners on the factory floor have watched jobs filter away and earnings flatten for more than a decade.
Mr. Phillips sees some of the same popular attitudes that defeated the Maastricht plan for European unification in a French referendum at work here in the US. The public is distrustful of elites, political and corporate, as incompetent, insulated, stagnant, and run by special interests.
If NAFTA passes, then Americans may respond the way Canadians treated former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney after he signed the Free Trade Agreement with the US, says Phillips. Voters this fall sent his Conservative Party into political oblivion.
If it loses, then the average American, Canadian, and Mexican has got to begin thinking about what should happen in North America, says Phillips, and these concepts have got to develop over years of discussion at the public level.
Jeffrey Bell, a conservative strategist and author of ``Populism and Elitism,'' points out that the public has historically opted for free trade when the debate is carried on long enough to percolate through to enough people.
NAFTA advocates, including the White House, erred by waiting too long to take their case to the public, he says. ``It's good for NAFTA that the debate is going public this way,'' Mr. Bell says.