Good Neighbors – An American Tradition

May 17, 2010

Americans pride themselves on being good neighbors.  From our earliest days of nationhood, through community libraries, volunteer fire departments, and public universities, Benjamin Franklin fostered the understanding that when neighbors work together everyone benefits.  The tradition has endured as a central part of the American psyche. What is true for our communities is also true for our nation. From Canada and Mexico, to Central America and the Caribbean islands, our relationships with our closest neighbors are critical to both their welfare and our own.

Yet the U.S. relationship with Mexico seems sadly lacking in good old fashioned neighborliness. Even as both our nations face serious mutual challenges related to security, immigration, trade, and global competitiveness, there seems to be little feeling that we are in it together. And with our shared border, environment, and markets we are most definitely in it together.

Thomas Friedman put it succinctly in a recent NYT op-ed: “We take the Mexican-American relationship for granted… what’s happening in Mexico has become much more critical to American foreign policy and merits more of our attention.”

To that end, Secretary Clinton’s engagement of Mexico on the basis of partnership was a welcome early initiative by the Obama administration. Speaking of the violence plaguing Mexico, Clinton said in March 2009 and reiterated again recently, “[W]e accept our share of the responsibility.” Truly, as Americans we should accept and take steps to address the fact that drug violence in Mexico, as elsewhere, is fueled by our country’s seemingly insatiable demand for illicit drugs.

What seems to be most sorely lacking in U.S. attitudes is the recognition that we have a stake in Mexico’s success, that a thriving Mexico is squarely in our national and economic interests. Surely, one of the signal American failures of the last century is that even as the United States grew into a global economic powerhouse we failed to commensurately lift the fortunes of our neighbor, Mexico. And yet the most concrete step the United States has taken to build economic partnership with Mexico, the North American Free Trade Agreement, has been ceaselessly attacked notwithstanding the clear empirical evidence of its success.

Recent U.S. actions have done nothing to make Mexico feel more like a valued neighbor. Trade disputes with three neighboring countries tell the story:

• Canada – When protectionist Buy American provisions in last year’s stimulus legislation threatened long-standing cross-border commercial relationships between U.S. and Canadian firms, U.S. negotiators met Canadian concerns, brokering a deal to keep affected supply chains whole.

• Brazil – In a dispute with Brazil over subsidies to U.S. cotton farmers, the U.S. government moved quickly to offer Brazil incentives and a path to resolution that forestalled threatened retaliation against U.S. imports and intellectual property.

• Mexico – Last year, Congress barred funding for a cross-border trucking pilot program that was itself only a down-payment on a fifteen year-old U.S. NAFTA obligation. The Obama administration  reacted with a yawn (the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative did not offer a statement at the time) to Mexican tariff retaliation that to this day are impacting $2.4 billion in U.S. exports to Mexico.

The inevitable conclusion to be drawn from these three disputes and the vastly different responses they’ve engendered is that the United States fails to view its neighbor, Mexico, with the same seriousness it does Canada and Brazil. Unfortunately for U.S. workers the result is likely to be additional tariff retaliation from Mexico resulting in further loss of U.S. jobs.

To be sure, Mexico, too, has to shoulder its fair share of the blame for the state of the relationship. The single most important step our neighbor could take would be to demonstrate that it sees the problem of illegal emigration as more than just a convenient social relief valve and a source of remittance revenue. Nevertheless, the burden of leadership falls on the United States.

This week, President Felipe Calderón of Mexico visits the White House. Perhaps in the best of American tradition, the administration will advance a plan for deep bilateral engagement of our neighbor, offering a resolution to the trucking dispute as a token of good faith. And perhaps the rest of us could take the opportunity to reflect on our nation’s relationship with Mexico and consider, like Ben Franklin, what we can do to be better neighbors.

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