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Mexico Taking the Easy Way Out

March 09, 2003|M. Delal Baer | M. Delal Baer is senior advisor at the Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

WASHINGTON — Mexico, in the flush of democratic pride over the 2000 election of opposition party candidate Vicente Fox, announced that it was pursuing a new leadership role on the world stage. It sought and won a nonpermanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Nothing has tested Mexico's nascent desire to lead as much as the impending council vote on a U.S-pushed resolution authorizing war on Iraq.

Mexican foreign policy has been anchored to the country's need to assert its independence vis-a-vis the United States. Domestic politics drove Mexico's anti-American foreign policy, impelled by a need to burnish the nationalist and social revolutionary mythology of the old Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) regime. Indeed, PRI-led governments racked up an impressive U.N. record of voting in tandem with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War era, a record that began to change only after the Berlin Wall fell and Mexico entered into the North American Free Trade Agreement. Given this history, change in Mexico City would imply a foreign policy unabashedly friendlier to the United States.

Yet today, Mexico is contemplating joining the Franco-German position of favoring continued U.N. inspections in Iraq. Mexicans have described their posture as valiant, as if it were an act of courage to defy the United States. In truth, nothing could be easier or more traditional. Mexico's proclamations in favor of peace have been applauded by the Mexican media, the Mexican left, demonstrating crowds and the nationalist wing of the PRI. But is this truly an act of leadership or a change in the direction of Mexican foreign policy?

The Mexican government's attraction to the French position is understandable. Support for the U.S. position is wobbly, at home and abroad. It is hard to ask that Mexico swim against the current, especially since Mexico is four months away from midterm elections that will decide the composition of its lower house of Congress.

There is nothing the traditional wing of the PRI would like more than an opportunity to accuse Fox of submitting to U.S. pressure in advance of those elections. It is also possible that, if Mexico votes at the U.N. in favor of war, the PRI-controlled Senate would mount a supreme court challenge saying the vote violates Mexico's pacifist constitution.

True leadership, however, understands that it takes more courage to confront a dangerous pariah than to espouse dreamy pacifist ideals. Mexico appears to be cloaking itself in the noble cause of pacifism, but it is following the path of least resistance rather than the tougher one of principle.

Why, one might ask, would a vote against Saddam Hussein be a matter of principle in U.S.-Mexican relations? Let us set aside the obvious fact that Hussein has used chemical weapons against his own people and has defied multiple U.N. resolutions. Let us even set aside the fact that Mexico and the United States are neighbors, and neighbors should be true friends in times of trouble. Mexico need not feel friendship toward the United States to conclude that the horrors of chemical warfare know no borders. The fact is, Mexico's security is joined by geography to the U.S., even though Mexico is an innocent bystander in the conflicts between Islamic terrorists and the United States. It is in Mexico's national interest to prevent an attack on the U.S. that could have spillover effects on Mexico.

The U.S.-Mexican border is a blessing and a risk -- we need to address the risks together in order to share the blessings. If President Bush believes Hussein poses a threat to U.S. security, why would Mexico implicitly undermine the U.S. right to self-defense, especially when Mexico is a beneficiary of the U.S. defense umbrella?

Mexico will surely weigh the consequences of its Security Council vote. It need not worry much about the reaction of the White House, which will, in any event, strive to preserve a good working relationship. The truly worrisome consequences would be felt in the U.S. Congress and in U.S. border states. Bush may still be willing to seek a temporary-worker program for Mexico, for example, but border-state representatives would find it harder to vote for immigration liberalization. The well-informed know that Mexico has worked closely with the United States to beef up border security, but others will argue that if we cannot trust Mexico to face up to Hussein, how can we trust Mexico to manage border security?

In addition, the man on the street may ask, isn't this the same Mexico that received U.S. financial support on multiple occasions and that won the support of two U.S. presidents in the creation of NAFTA in spite of the opposition of the average union worker? Why give special treatment to Mexico in its hours of distress, they may ask, when Mexico is unable to respond in our hour of darkness?

Mexico will have to decide whether it wishes to model its relationship with the U.S. after Spain and Britain or after France and Germany. Britain and Spain relate to the United States as friends and equals, believing the U.S. to be a benign power without imperial pretensions. The French and Germans carry the heavy psychological burden of a tortured history and, as a consequence, feel a need to restrain a United States they assume uses its power toward imperial ends.

Past U.S. offenses against its sovereignty have left Mexico with mixed emotions and a reflexive need to contain the U.S. in the name of national autonomy. Breaking free from that past means building a cultural architecture that is able to embrace the hard facts of our shared national interest without automatically equating those with submission. The United Nations vote on Iraq will be a measure of Mexico's ability to evolve and find its true vocation for leadership.

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