February 9, 2001


Behind the Bienvenidos: Bush and Fox Neighbors, Allies with Very Different World Views

This week's meeting between the presidents of the United States and Mexico is sure to be filled with good feelings — the two men have much in common on both personal and political levels. But their foreign policies, as demonstrated by their appointments, are diametrically opposed, which may make for some troubling, off-screen undercurrents.

By Andrew Reding

Personal diplomacy and charm will be front and center when President George W. Bush meets Mexican President Vicente Fox on February 16. Out of sight, major policy differences will be aired.

There is much about President Bush that is likely to endear him to President Fox, beginning with his genial, "let's talk" manner. Both are former governors. Both are from right-of-center political parties.

Both favor cowboy paraphernalia (Fox gave Bush a pair of cowboy boots last summer) and have ranches — they will meet at Fox's ranch in San Cristobal, Guanajuato. Bush has a Mexican-American nephew. Fox had an American grandfather, from whom he got his surname.

Bush has created goodwill by choosing Mexico for his first foreign visit. Fox has done likewise by selling electricity to California and offering to extradite drug kingpins.

But as evident in their choice of foreign ministers, Fox and Bush have very different world views. Colin Powell is a former four-star general who headed Ronald Reagan's National Security Council and George Bush's Joint Chiefs of Staff. Jorge G. Castaneda, on the other hand, is a foreign policy scholar with ties to Latin American social democrats, and Congressional Democrats. On some of the more important issues, they are at loggerheads.

Following a January 30 meeting with Secretary Powell in which he expressed his country's disapproval of U.S. policies toward Colombia and Cuba, Foreign Secretary Castaneda said, "We are not scared of engaging the U.S. anymore. We know we will win some, we will lose some, and on most of them we will get half a loaf. But there are no taboo issues anymore."

The Mexicans are also sensitive to claims of American exceptionalism. Shortly after taking office, Secretary of State Powell told his staff "other systems do not work," and "we are going to show a vision to the world of the value system of America." To a country whose history books chronicle repeated humiliations at the hands of a much more powerful and overbearing neighbor, these statements smack of imperial hubris. Such attitudes have fueled Mexican nationalism, and made the country a strong advocate of international law — in part to set limits on the arbitrary behavior of powerful states.

Though President Fox has a genuine fondness for the United States, the land of his grandfather, he falls squarely in the tradition of Mexican nationalism and internationalism. That's why he chose the leftist son of a former foreign minister to chart his foreign policy.

Like his father before him, and virtually the entire Mexican foreign policy establishment, Castaneda is a forceful advocate of international law, and nonintervention in domestic conflicts. That puts him at cross-purposes with Gen. Powell, who has reaffirmed U.S. military aid to Colombia and the U.S. blockade of Cuba, and is proposing the U.S. unilaterally abrogate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty by building a missile defense system.

President Bush has also announced he will not seek ratification of the Statute for the International Criminal Court signed by President Clinton, despite the fact that some 120 countries, including Mexico, have endorsed it. All four policies point toward the unilateralism Mexicans dread.

Then there's NAFTA, one of the senior Bush's proudest achievements. Neither Fox nor Castaneda thinks it goes far enough. They would like to see it evolve into a common market like the European Union, with the eventual removal of barriers to immigration.

Bush has indicated an interest in establishing a guest-worker program, which Mexico would certainly welcome. He has also proposed that Mexico increase energy sales to the U.S., in part by building power plants. But unless he is willing to offer something meaningful in return — particularly a long-term plan to establish a common market — he risks insulting Mexican sensibilities, by implying that Mexico's role should be subservient, as a supplier of cheap labor and energy to its wealthy northern neighbor.

So look for lots of photos of smiling faces in cowboy regalia, and a joint appearance committing the two countries to a revitalized partnership against drug trafficking and to foster trade in the hemisphere. But the big story is likely to be in what remains unsaid, at least in public.

Andrew Reding directs the Americas Project of the World Policy Institute, where he is also senior fellow for hemispheric affairs.

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