President Zedillo's Visit: Testing the Partnership

BECAUSE the two countries are closely linked in so many ways, the visit of a Mexican president to the United States is always an important event. With the relationship now more open than ever before to public view, and anxiety rising on both sides of the border about many key issues, President Ernesto Zedillo's first state visit to Washington Oct. 9 could be particularly significant.

Although they all may not like it, Mexicans understand how critical the US is to their country. It is no secret that an overwhelming majority of Mexico's exports are sent to US markets (more than 75 percent, in fact) and that most tourist and investment dollars originate in the United States. As we saw in 1982 and again last year, a change in US interest rates can push Mexico into financial turmoil - and US actions can either help to solve or to prolong a national economic crisis. US public opinion as w ell as official policy are given abundant attention in Mexico and, whether intended or not, often exert a powerful influence on Mexican decisionmaking.

Although Americans tend to be less aware of them, reasons also exist for the US to worry about its relations with Mexico. Mexico is the third-largest (and, for the past three years, fastest-growing) trading partner of the US, absorbing 10 percent of total US exports; it is also the second supplier of foreign oil. More immigrants, legal and illegal, come from Mexico than from anywhere else, and a major share of the illicit drugs that arrive in the US pass through Mexico. There is also a good chance that political turmoil or prolonged violence in Mexico will directly affect the US - by provoking larger flows of immigrants or pressure for intervention that neither country would want.

Policy on Mexico reverberates

More important still, debates about US relations with Mexico often serve as a convenient proxy for arguments about US foreign policy worldwide. During the long, bitter, and highly publicized debate over free trade with Mexico, US-Mexico relations were relentlessly scrutinized (probably more so than relations with any country other than the Soviet Union in its day) and, less than a year after NAFTA was approved, the peso crisis once again sharply focused US attention on Mexico. More than US-Mexico ties w ere at stake, however. The dispute was also about US relations with Latin America and the rest of the world, and about the role of the US in the post-cold-war era - about protection and openness, isolationism, and leadership.

The way the US chooses to deal with Mexico will importantly shape and constrain US foreign policy on many fronts. If, for example, the US were to back away from its free-trade pact with Mexico, it would be an unmistakable signal of disengagement from all of Latin America. It would be hard to imagine how the US could pursue the hemisphere-wide free-trade accord agreed to by 34 countries at the December 1994 Summit of the Americas, or how it could undertake any deeper multilateral trade commitments on a g lobal basis. If the US cannot find ways to cooperate productively with Mexico on immigration problems, US immigration and refugee policy is likely to become more restrictive.

US cooperation with Mexico is also central for the effectiveness of broader inter-American initiatives in the defense of democracy and human rights, antidrug and corruption efforts, and environmental protection. Without Mexico's participation, it will be difficult to make these kinds of hemispheric initiatives work.

Getting acquainted

With its continuing authoritarian traits, deep poverty, widespread corruption, and intense national pride, Mexico is not always an easy country with which to work (although, of course, neither is the US). But Mexico has shown that it can be a reliable and responsive partner. During the protracted depression of the 1980s, Mexico stuck by its debt agreements. During its recent financial crisis, despite sizable current-account deficits, Mexico never retreated from its free-trade commitments under NAFTA, no r did it waver in the economic policy course to which it agreed as a condition of the US assistance package. And the country has made progress toward reforming elections and opening politics.

Given the intensity and complexity of the US-Mexico relationship, no one should expect grand accomplishments from a two-day presidential visit. This will not be a time to solve specific problems or launch major new programs. What can be achieved is the development of stronger personal and professional ties between Presidents Zedillo and Clinton, who hardly know each other; a clear perception by each government of the priorities and concerns of the other; and a renewed appreciation in both countries - am ong senior officials, opinion leaders, and the general public - of the fundamental importance of this bilateral relationship and the need to make it work.

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