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U.S. -- Mexico: How to Lose Friends & Alienate People

Troubles Not Just to South: What of Russia and China?

March 09, 1997|Martin Walker | Martin Walker, a contributing editor to Opinion, is U.S. bureau chief of Britain's the Guardian, and author of "The President We Deserve: Bill Clinton's Rise, Falls and Comebacks" (Crown)

WASHINGTON — As the southern neighbor of the United States, and source of most of its illegal immigrants and illegal drugs, Mexico is widely perceived as a special case in U.S. foreign relations. This was the assumption behind President Bill Clinton's controversial decision to recertify Mexico as a cooperative partner in the drug war.

But that assumption is false. Mexico typifies a disturbing development that characterizes all three of America's most important foreign relationships.

Mexico is in the throes of an agonizing social and economic transition from a one-party state, with centralized control over the country's industrial and financial system, into a free market that will, with luck, generate a more pluralist political system.

One crucial symptom of these wrenching changes is endemic corruption among political, corporate and law-enforcement elites. Another is the growth of organized crime, and the erosion of law and order in major cities. All this is accompanied by a widening and politically destabilizing gap between the rich and the demoralized poor.

This is precisely the situation in two other countries of central importance to the United States: Russia and China. All three are wounded states in which traditional central authority is in question, and unscrupulous new elites are emerging whose new wealth comes from sources of questionable legality. Their power is such that the usual government-to-government agreements cannot be relied on. These countries have another feature in common: Any U.S. government has relatively few policy tools available to improve their behavior.

The levers at Washington's hand in each case are the same: a little U.S. aid; a great deal more multinational aid, in whose distribution the U.S. has an important say; a great potential in U.S. trade, and sweet reason--as American policy makers seek to persuade these countries to promote political changes that are in their long-term self-interest.

These levers have not worked too well. They have not dissuaded Russia from selling advanced weaponry and nuclear technology to Iran; nor from being unhelpful in a process of NATO enlargement whose goal is the democratic stabilization of Eastern Europe, transparently in Russian interests. Nor have these levers yet persuaded Russia to devise a coherent tax code or an investor-friendly economic environment, because the self-interest of corrupt local elites outweighs the national interest.

These U.S. levers have also failed to persuade China to acknowledge even the basic human-rights decencies; to abide by its own promises to curb the widespread piracy of U.S. and other Western intellectual rights; to pay even lip-service to Hong Kong's democratic institutions, or to control the greed of its arms traders.

In Mexico, U.S. aid has been more than generous--and not only in providing intelligence, funds and military-surplus helicopters to Mexico's police and military anti-narcotics units. Clinton defied his own party base in the labor unions, and the Democratic leaders in Congress, to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has produced a U.S. trade deficit with Mexico, now running at $15 billion a year. One striking foreign-policy decision of Clinton's first term was to take a serious political risk by overruling Congress in order to lead the international bailout of the Mexican peso.

Successive Mexican political leaders have tried to accommodate U.S. interests. Whatever the role of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and his extremely rich and controversial family in the murkier aspects of Mexican life, this Harvard-educated modernizer backed both NAFTA and the efforts to reform the sclerotic political system. His successor, President Ernesto Zedillo, appears equally intent on pluralistic reform. But rather as Mikhail S. Gorbachev discovered in the Soviet Union, and as Deng Xiaoping's successors are learning in China, dismantling an entrenched one-party structure is difficult.

There have only been two triumphantly successful examples of authoritarian states being transformed into prosperous and stable democracies. But in both Japan and West Germany after 1945, the Western allies had troops on the ground to enforce the reforms and nurture the democratic process. In neither Russia, China nor Mexico is it possible to envisage reforms unfolding in similar conditions of political order backed by the presence of an occupying military force.

There are three logical responses to this unhappy challenge in the three states. The first is to shrug and accept that, under the principle of noninterference in domestic affairs, these states will go their own way. They lack the traditions of democracy and free enterprise that make the Europeans (relatively speaking) such agreeable partners in the promotion of U.S. interests and values.

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