Being Presidential on Trade

August 13, 1992

The North American Free Trade Agreement announced yesterday is Mexico's green card for entry into the modern, free-market economy that brings prosperity to her American and Canadian neighbors to the north. It holds out the promise of releasing Mexico from Third World poverty and freeing its vast human and material resources for the development of the largest, richest trading bloc ever.

Viewed in this light, it is perhaps the most important security pact any U.S. administration has negotiated since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed to deal with the Soviet threat.

hTC There are no Mexican missiles aimed at the United States. But there are millions of Mexicans in an exploding population who in future years will either have the means to live in their native land or migrate northward, either legally or otherwise.

Mexican stability is manifestly in the long-range interest of all of North America, a factor that should weigh far more heavily than incremental gains and losses for the governments, regions, industries, labor pools and farming groups affected.

This pact is the brainchild of Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. It was he who shattered Mexico's traditional insularity, opening its markets and its economic infrastructure to the outside world. To attract outside investment, he made concessions a lesser statesman would not have dared. NAFTA is the culmination of his efforts, and it is to President Bush's credit that he seized upon the Salinas initiative as an historic opportunity.

By almost any measure, this new trade treaty is a good deal for the United States. It is unfortunate, however, that its unveiling comes at political high season on the U.S. hustings. Mr. Bush will exploit NAFTA at the Republican National Convention in Houston next week as an example of his foreign policy expertise, thus giving it a partisan overlay.

Even more troubling, Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton finds its expedient to retreat from the free-trade positions he took during the primaries in order to join organized labor and congressional protectionists in carping at the treaty. He even has indicated support for a proposal by House majority leader Dick Gephardt to levy a tax on U.S.-Mexican trade, a move contrary to the whole spirit and thrust of NAFTA.

To be sure, environmental safeguards and assistance for displaced workers must be a part of the U.S. adjustment to increased trade with Mexico to the south and Canada to the north. But voters should demand that Mr. Clinton make his case before they accept the Democratic line that the pact is deficient in these areas.

If elected to the White House, Mr. Clinton will have to push this treaty through Congress. He should be careful not to build up troubles that he, himself, would have to confront. International trade is a presidential issue on which his qualifications to assess the long-range interests of this nation should rightly be judged. Mr. Clinton's wiggling and waffling is dismaying.

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