United States trade representative Mickey Kantor's cautious approach to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in last week's negotiations laid to rest persistent rumors that he was the bastard offspring of Smoot and Hawley.
In spite of the Clinton administration's earlier protectionist feints, the exploratory talks show hints that with the right (read Clinton-supported) negotiating strategies the pact may yet be ratified as initially constructed. The weighty appendages of the three supplemental agreements designed primarily to placate opposing labor, industry and environmental groups have not undermined the act's fundamental intent.
If ratified by Congress, NAFTA would eliminate virtually all import-export barriers among the United States, Canada and Mexico over the next fifteen years. The fact that the 360 million consumers in this free trade area would automatically benefit from lowered prices should be a major impetus for the treaty's ratification.
But widespread optimism among the signatories has been eroded by the attacks on NAFTA made recently by special interest groups in the U.S. Fearing widespread unemployment and continued environmental violations by Mexico, formidable labor, industry and environmental groups are using their political clout to impede the progress of the negotiations.
A plan proposed by Montana Senator Max Baucus calls for the establishment of trilateral commissions with the ability to investigate complaints of environmental transgressions and to levy across the board trade sanctions if systematic, persistent violations are found.
This should appease environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and The National Wildlife Federation who have been clamoring for the inclusion of substantive enforcement mechanisms in the agreement.
(Fortunately, the Clinton administration, realizing the folly of attempting to impose U.S. domestic law on sovereign nations would deny subpoena powers to the board.)
Michael Fischer, the former executive director of the Sierra Club, has said that there must be "measurable, quantifiable environmental values consistent across boards, even while we acknowledge a nation's sovereignty."
But paradoxically, environmentalist concerns too often ignore the reality that beleaguered economics are simply unable to set in place the necessary apparatus for strict enforcement procedures. Mexicans are not necessarily less concerned about the environment than their northern counterparts, just hampered by economic constraints.
NAFTA and its promise of economic benefits will go a long way in enabling the implementation of stricter scrutiny and more stringent environmental laws. The apocalyptic nightmare of a devastated landscape and the continent-wide lowering of environmental standards presented by the more radical environmentalist factions may make for good theater, but that vision is patently false and unnecessarily alarmist.
Jagdish Bhagwati, professor of economics at Columbia University, warned in Friday's Wall Street Journal that "if a nation's trading rights can be suspended simply because it refuses to accept another nation's idiosyncratic values, everyone could insist on morality-driven trade restrictions and the whole international trade system would head down a slippery slope." He also sagely urged us to examine whether "environmental regulations are really protectionism in disguise."
U.S. labor groups who fear the flight of manufacturing jobs to Mexico are understandably disconcerted at the prospect of further unemployment. Indeed the number of jobs projected as being lost approach a quarter of a million. The gains in American auto parts, computers and industrial machinery, however, should more than offset losses in other sectors. It will be a difficult adjustment for the affected sectors, but this should be a particularly opportune time for the administration to implement a strategy for upgrading factors of production. Surely a palatable political solution can be reached.
Opponents of NAFTA argue that Mexico is not democratically progressive and that it lacks the democratic progressive and that it lacks the democratic and legal structures necessary for democracy. This ignores the fact that an economically thriving Mexico which has joined the ranks of the developed countries would be better situated to facilitate a more rigorous implementation of democratic structures.
For example, Mexico has already ratified the American Convention on Human Rights, which provides for the observance of basic human rights throughout the hemisphere, a clear indication of its willingness to make advances on this front.
Clearly, Mexico's political system needs fundamental reforms, but progress is being made precisely because of the increased attention being paid to the country. Dissidents no longer encounter mysterious deaths; indeed, they are actually gaining footholds in the system and their political access is increasing. Substantive political reform is usually impossible without economic development; the symbiosis between the two is incontestable.
Mexico's president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari is trying desperately to enhance his country's international profile. Seeking to deliver credibility and to make Mexico an attractive place for investors, Salinas is working to create political stability.
NAFTA will give the Mexican president the leverage he needs to set fundamental change in motion. Its potential for promoting economic stability, and the prospect of growth can enable these policy objectives to be met. An essential tool is the implementation of the multi-billion dollar Solidarity plan, an important social reform program aimed at eradicating widespread poverty and corruption.
Salinas hasty retreat from a scheme which involved requesting a substantial donation of twenty five million dollars to his ruling PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) from a number of prominent Mexican executives was in part due to the increased scrutiny brought on by the ongoing negotiations.
These changes cannot be underestimated. After 70 years of benign neglect by the United States, it only makes sense that Mexico (its third largest trading partner) be involved in a deal which would ultimately be overwhelmingly beneficial. An alliance of this kind is also crucial in countering the emerging regional dynamos of the European Community as well as similar Asian groups.
President Clinton needs both to send an unambiguous message of support for NAFTA and to devise an effective strategy for sending it through Congress. He must move quickly to get all of the major players on board. Speed is a function of power. The longer it takes to send a pact through Congress, the higher the odds that the pact will be captured and eviscerated by vested interests.
NAFTA supporters agree that immediate action by Clinton is necessary. Former Republican Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin, now a Fellow at the Institute of Politics, noted that, "President Clinton has proved himself to be very adept politically and should be able to persuade his constituents that mutual self-interests would be effectively served by the ratification of the pact."
But the benefits of NAFTA go beyond economic benefits for the three countries involved. NAFTA is just the promising beginning of an attempt at hemispheric integration, a start to erasing hemispheric economic disparities.
The prospect of inclusion in a free trade area and of reaping its economic benefits would help facilitate the sweeping changes now taking place in the political economies of Latin American and Caribbean countries, thus encouraging widespread democratic changes and a renewed commitment to market-based economics. If we are to accomplish this important task, we cannot allow NAFTA to become a casualty of special interests.
Few will tolerate a principled desire for religious homogeneity
Lorraine A. Lezama '94 is an editorial editor of the Crimson.
Neither special interest groups' demands nor unwarranted concerns about Mexico should thwart NAFTA's ratification
In addition to its economic benefits, the treaty would take an important step toward hemispheric unity