TWO conditions are indispensable for establishing a sound international policy.
The first is continuity. By its very nature, foreign policy, a long-term enterprise, requires persistence and tenacity as well as skill and realism.
The second condition is unity of purpose. The various groups and interests that make up a nation must agree on a common goal.
Those conditions, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted more than a century ago, are especially hard to achieve in modern democracies. The fact that parties alternate in holding power is a constant threat to continuity; changes upset friendly nations and introduce instability into the international sphere.
Conflicts of ideology and interests among political groups make it difficult to achieve consensus, the foundation of any good foreign policy.
The debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement corroborates Tocqueville's astute observation.
The idea for the treaty was born in the United States, not in Canada or Mexico. It first appeared in the famous fourth point of the Truman Doctrine. It took on various shapes under presidents as different as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. It achieved concrete form with George Bush as a free trade agreement and reached its final articulation with Bill Clinton.
So it has been proposed by several American governments and adopted by Republicans and Democrats. The treaty's intent is economic and political.
The creation of a great continental market would be the first step toward the founding of a community of American nations. Seen from that perspective, NAFTA looks like the first step in a grand design.
Its goal, therefore, is historical, transcending economics and politics. It is a reply to the terrible challenge of our historical moment, which is being torn asunder by the rebirth of the most ferocious nationalisms.
The nation-state, the great invention of the modern age, has two handicaps, says Daniel Bell: It is too big to attend efficiently to the demands and requirements of small nations and too small to face problems of global dimensions.
The creation of continental communities would represent an intermediate solution that would preserve the existence of the nation-state and that of small nations at an equal distance from old-style imperialism and international anarchy. That community would be the beginning of the international order that politicians have promised for so long.
The negotiations that preceded the signing of the treaty were long and laborious.
To protect the interests of different U.S. groups, parallel agreements were reached over labor and ecological problems.
Unexpectedly, in the final phase of the process, when all that is left is for Congress to ratify it, opposition to the treaty has grown considerably.
The economic arguments against the treaty diverge so wildly that it is impossible to reduce them to a common idea or group of principles. Nor does the opposition offer a sound alternative. It is united in its negation but lacks any positive principle.
In reality, the critics defend the interests (and occasionally the prejudices) of isolated groups that in no way represent the general opinion of the people of the United States. They thus revive a constant in U.S. history: isolationism. This attitude openly contradicts the U.S. position with regard to its responsibilities to the international community.
The consequences of rejecting NAFTA would be not only economic and political but historical as well; only someone with a strange blindness could fail to see that.
The treaty has implications that affect the historical memory of Mexicans and the future of our relations with the United States.
Mexico is living through a process of modernization. If the treaty is not approved, it would not be impossible for Mexico to look toward Japan or the European Community for trade and investment.
More important, rejection would unleash a wave of anti-U.S. sentiment that would quickly spread to the rest of Latin America.
Nationalism has always been a seedbed for demagogues and extremists: Why turn Latin America into another center of disorder? Don't we have more than enough with the Balkans and the former Soviet Union?
NAFTA is a step toward the construction of a genuine international order.
To reject it would revive old injuries, feed historical hatreds and ultimately sow today's wind so we can reap tomorrow's whirlwind.
Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990. This was translated from the Spanish by Alfred MacAdam.