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Living With a Difficult Neighbor: the United States and Mexico

December 27, 1987|ABRAHAM F. LOWENTHAL | Abraham F. Lowenthal, a professor of international relations at USC, is the executive director of the Inter-American Dialogue, a convocation of government, business and academic leaders from throughout the hemisphere. He is the author of "Partners in Conflict: The United States and Latin America" (Johns Hopkins University Press)

It is time to be frank about our increasingly difficult neighbor. We have long considered our neighbor politically stable--and it does have regularly scheduled periodic elections. But beneath this surface stability we must recognize that there is a cyclical process; every president in recent memory has been so weakened by the end of his term that grave problems worsen, and inevitably spill across our borders.

We are accustomed to thinking of our neighbor's economy as dynamic and growing, but in recent years it has become quite shaky. Excessive government spending has caused huge fiscal deficits, financed by foreign money that has now begun to run out. Uncompetitive industries have been faltering, fueling strong pressures for protectionism. Domestic and international confidence in our neighbor's economic management has been eroding.

We are deeply concerned by the evident moral decay in our neighbor's society, in public and in private life. Key presidential advisers and cabinet members have violated the law, but it is very rare that anyone is ever convicted, and virtually never are any violators imprisoned. Corruption is also common in business and in labor--at low levels and at high. And huge and ugly profits are made in our neighbor's society through the deadly trade in narcotics, a national curse. Government leaders call for an end to the drug traffic, but it continues to expand--mainly across our border.

We are disturbed as well by our neighbor's foreign policies. We think of our neighbor as a natural ally, as a country with which we enjoy a historic "special relationship," but sometimes what seems special is that we disagree about almost everything. We are particularly provoked by our neighbor's approach, so different from our own, in response to Central America's civil wars. Domestic political and even psychological considerations seem to be driving our neighbor's highly ideological policy in Central America; a pragmatic pursuit of national interests would surely dictate a different stance, much more like our own. On broader issues, too, our neighbor seems insensitive to our primary concerns, to be making decisions for its own reasons, with very little regard for how we will react.

These comments have often been made, although not always so directly, by people from the United States about Mexico. What is less evident to us in this country, however, is that all of these complaints could also be made, and often are, by Mexicans about the United States.

Our country has many serious problems that inevitably affect Mexico. The weakening of our presidency toward the end of each Chief Executive's term during the past generation has eroded our country's leadership on important bilateral questions. The slowing of our economy, the buildup of huge fiscal deficits and the decline in domestic and international confidence in our national economic management inevitably and adversely affect Mexico. So does the obsessive character of our foreign policy, particularly in Central America. And it is our country's appetite for drugs that fuels this corrosive and criminal narcotics traffic, hurting Mexicans as well as ourselves.

It is vital to understand how differently things can look from south of the border, and to recognize that the main problems in U.S.-Mexico relations are not entirely made in Mexico. Each of the key issues--differences over debt, trade, migration, drugs and foreign policy--arises in significant measure from attitudes, policies and actions of the United States.

Mexico's massive foreign debt--nearly $110 billion--was caused by overborrowing, of course, but also (and equally) by excessive lending. Commercial banks seeking to place recycled petrodollars aggressively marketed loans to Mexico in the 1970s, confident at the time that Mexico's growth would justify the risks. Commercial frictions between Mexico and the United States arise as much from rear-guard efforts to protect uncompetitive U.S. industries as from Mexican causes. Migration from Mexico to the United States--both a major problem and something of a solution in each society--derives partly from Mexico's population pressures, but it also reflects the demands of the U.S. economy for certain kinds of labor that few people in the United States are willing to perform. Drug production and trafficking in and through Mexico would decrease if the United States did something effective about curbing the demand. And the differences with Mexico over foreign policy, especially in Central America, reflect the nationalist impulses and ideological zeal of our government, particularly under this Administration.

One key aspect of U.S.-Mexico relations looks almost exactly the same from both sides of the frontier: We cannot escape dealing with our large and unruly neighbor, with all its defects. Geography and destiny force us to take our neighbor into account, but we need genuine empathy to do so successfully.

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