When President Bush and his Mexican and Canadian counterparts initialed the North American Free Trade Agreement last year in San Antonio, the home of the Alamo, they knew the battle over passage would be tough. Incoming President Clinton has tentatively aligned himself with supporters of the agreement. But, by accepting the terms of engagement defined by the opponents, namely the possibility of job loss and environmental degradation, he risks losing the war before it has even begun.
Supporters of NAFTA have put themselves at a severe disadvantage by allowing the debate to be framed between the job losses of real people today, and the eventual creation of new jobs for people not yet in the job market. It's as if the wisdom of arms-control agreements were fought over the impact on defense workers instead of national survival. Yet, passage of NAFTA is as vital to long-term American security as were those Cold War agreements with Moscow.
A few facts:
* The 2,000-mile border, from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, is the only land barrier of that size between a developed and a Third World country. The U.S. border patrol has fewer than 500 officers presently assigned to keep out the million-plus Mexicans and others who crossed into the U.S. illegally during the last 12 months.
* Rejecting NAFTA would deal a devastating blow to a country still recovering from its foreign-debt crisis. A societal breakdown would cause millions of Mexicans to flee north. As President Salinas said, "Mexicans will either get jobs in Mexico or they will get jobs in the U.S. We will send you either goods or people." Hear the plaintive cry: "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States."
* By the end of this decade, Mexico will have a population of 100 million people and perhaps double that number by 2030. More than half will be under 15 years of age. This will be an enormous potential market.
* Los Angeles is now the second-largest Spanish-speaking city in the world, after Mexico City and before Madrid. By the middle of the next century, almost half the U.S. population will be Spanish-speaking.
* If lower wages were the only determinant in investment decisions, everyone long since would have moved their plants to Bangladesh. U.S. economy could buy the products from Mexico, pay Americans thrown out of work $10 an hour for retraining, and still be $2.00 better off.
* The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty is up for review in 1995. Mexico has taken the lead among the signatories who believe the U.S. and the other nuclear powers have not been living up to their part of the treaty bargain, including commitment to take steps toward a comprehensive test-ban treaty and measures to promote general and complete disarmament. Without the non-proliferation treaty, there surely would be many more fingers on many more nuclear triggers. A Mexico rejected on NAFTA would not be an accommodating Mexico on non-proliferation.
* Mexico, which is now the 13th-largest economy, is the U.S.'s third-largest trading partner, and will soon be its first. The U.S. will export $40 billion worth of goods and services to Mexico this year. And Mexico, the largest foreign supplier of oil to the U.S., has the fourth-largest known reserves in the world.
The North American Free Trade Agreement can be the turning point in defining our economic and military security concerns during the 1990s and into the next century. If it is ratified, its total population of 360 million will establish a $6.5 trillion, continent-wide trading bloc, the largest in the world, that will enable us to compete more effectively in a global economy. But, first President-elect Clinton has to win congressional approval. Re-defining the battle to focus on U.S. national security is an essential first step toward ratification and achieving long-term security and prosperity for our nation.
Stanley A. Weiss, who lived and worked in Mexico for more than 20 years, is Chairman of Business Executives for National Security.