KGOU

Former Mexican Ambassador: More Cooperation Needed, Not Less

Dec 1, 2017

The United States and Mexico have a daily economic impact on each other, but citizens of both countries often don’t grasp the importance of the U.S.-Mexico relationship and how necessary cooperation is, according to a former Mexican ambassador.

Arturo Sarukhan, a 22-year Mexican Foreign Service officer and Mexican Ambassador to the United States from 2007 to 2013, told KGOU’s World Views the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, remains the most pressing issue for the U.S.-Mexico relationship.

President Donald Trump called NAFTA “the worst trade deal” ever signed by the United States. Sarukhan said this is simplistic “campaign propaganda,” and it undermines the interdependency that the U.S. and Mexico actually have.

“What has happened over the last decade is that our supply chains and production platforms have become unified,” Sarukhan said of the United States, Mexico and Canada. “We're producing North American goods because all our production chains are integrated.”

The war on drug cartels has been a source of tension between the U.S. and Mexico, and both countries have a role in exacerbating it. As Sarukhan put it, if Mexico was the springboard for drugs, then the U.S. was the swimming pool. The most powerful drugs cartels of Mexico exist to supply the world’s largest drug consumers of the United States.

Sarukhan said during his tenure as ambassador both the American and Mexican governments made commitments to cooperate.

“Both governments understood that the only way that we were going to tackle things like transnational organized crime, whether it was drug trafficking or human smuggling, was through a paradigm of joint responsibility,” Sarukhan said.

In order for the U.S. and Mexico to have a productive relationship moving forward, Sarukhan says both countries must achieve mutual cooperation and respect to solve problems, further trade and develop positive narratives.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

American-Mexican Interdependence:

I think that both countries throughout successive governments have done a relatively poor job of explaining to Americans and Mexicans alike, why these two countries are uniquely important to one another. If you come to think about it, Suzette, on a daily basis, there is no country on the face of the earth that touches the well-being and the security of Americans on a daily basis like Mexico does. Yes, we have the North Koreas, and the Middle Easts and the Chinas of the world which are all important and salient geostrategic challenges to the national security of the United States. But on day-to-day basis, no country touches the lives of America and Americans as Mexico does and vice versa. And I think one of the issues that many of us who believe in a mature, forward-looking, strategic, constructive relationship between these two neighbors, one of the things that we need to do is to understand how we win the hearts and minds of Mexicans and Americans.

The need for dynamic policy to combat the drugs:

[W]hen people ask me about Trump's wall that, first, this is a first century B.C. solution to 21st century challenges. It's not going to solve the issue of how many drugs cross the border or not. And it has fundamentally grated Mexican public opinion, as it relates to favorability perceptions of the United States. It is also true that a couple of decades ago the United States would wag its finger at Mexico and say most of the drugs coming into the United States come through Mexico, and Mexico would obviously, in a jingoistic and chauvinistic way, retort that if we were the springboard, you with a swimming pool.

NAFTA as a narrative:

It's much easier to say NAFTA's the worst deal ever in the history of mankind. And it takes much more time, and it's a much more nuanced discussion to explain to people why, thanks to NAFTA, for example, the United States has been able to maintain its competitiveness vis-a-vis China. President Trump talks about the deficit with Mexico as a terrible thing. Yes, the United States does have a trade deficit with Mexico, but that trade deficit is equal to 8 percent - 8 percent - of the total U.S. trade deficit with the world. So this is a red herring. The problem is how do we put this data, how do we create a narrative? How do we create personal stories so people can understand why this relationship is so important? And, how and how do we debunk some of the myths that are out there as to what either country is to the neighboring country?

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

Suzette Grillot: Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan, welcome to World Views.

Arturo Sarukhan: Thank you Suzette. Thank you for having me.

Grillot: Well it's a pleasure to have you here, and I really would love to hopefully solve U.S.-Mexican relations today. I don't know if we can get that far, but let's at least talk about U.S.-Mexican relations. If we read the news you would think we can't get along and that there are all kinds of problems with our relationship with the country that's you know, right across the border, and I share a lot with. Is that what we should think or what's the real story here?

Sarukhan: As in most good stories it's a bit more complicated than that. And given that we're talking about stories, let me start with one of the best by Charles Dickens: "A Tale of Two Cities." And in many ways that's the story of this relationship, because it's the best of times and it's the worst of times. It's the best of times because both countries over the past two decades have really deepened their engagement. The impact that they have on each other, the security, well-being, and prosperity. But at the same time, public perceptions and public narratives, on both sides of the border, have been especially in the last year and a half become extremely challenging, in great part because of what has happened in the 2016 presidential campaign when where one of the contenders and now 45th president of the United States decided to use Mexico as a political piñata, on three issues that in many ways intersect with the concerns, and worries, and issues that truly impact the well-being and the livelihood of so many Americans. And if you come to think of it, the three issues with which he latched on to the Mexican agenda: Trade and NAFTA, the issue of immigration and what that is doing or isn't doing to the fabric of American society, and then the issue of the border wall and security in a very convoluted, and challenging, and fluid world. These three issues are if you sort of boil them down to security economic well-being and cultural diversity, and how the country is or isn't changing. These were hot button issues throughout the campaign. So, regardless of whether this had a passport called Mexico, these are issues that resonate with a big chunk of the American electorate.

Sarukhan: On top of this, I think that both countries throughout successive governments have done a relatively poor job of explaining to Americans and Mexicans alike, why these two countries are uniquely important to one another. If you come to think about it, Suzette, on a daily basis, there is no country on the face of the earth that touches the well-being and the security of Americans on a daily basis like Mexico does. Yes we have the North Koreas, and the Middle Easts, and the Chinas, of the world which are all important and salient geostrategic challenges to the national security of the United States. But on day-to-day basis, no country touches the lives of America, and Americans as Mexico does and vice versa. And I think one of the issues that many of us who believe in a mature, forward-looking, strategic, constructive relationship between these two neighbors, one of the things that we need to do is to understand how we win the hearts and minds of Mexicans and Americans. How do we explain to them what's at stake in productive relationships? And that, despite that some people would like us to do that, you can't control, you can't press control-alt-delete and erase either Mexico from one side of the border, or the U.S. from the other side of the border. We're joined at the hip. And we have to understand how to tap into those opportunities, how to tackle some of the challenges that we face jointly, whether it's drugs moving in one direction and guns and bulk cash from the United States feeding organized crime, moving in the other into Mexico.

Grillot: Who carries the burden of this because the media clearly plays a role here because you can't read positive stories, really in the United States press it seems to me. And I spend a lot of time in Mexico and I travel there, and I am constantly dismayed at the negative news here. But it's really this case in Mexico too, especially now, I mean my most recent trip there I can't believe how much negative commentary I got about what's happening here because there's nothing but negative news about the United States in the in the Mexican press. So the media plays a role. Is it a failure of diplomats? I mean you said governments. The governments are not doing a very good job of making the case. So governments are failing, the media is failing. The people ...

Sarukhan: The private sector has done a terrible job. Again regardless of what you think the impact of NAFTA has been, you're entitled to your own points of view, but you can't be entitled to your own data. And the data is very powerful and is very compelling. And regardless of what many Americans on the campaign trail heard throughout 2016, NAFTA directly sustains five million U.S. jobs. There are 26 states in America today that have Mexico as their number one trading partner. Mexico is the second largest buyer of U.S. goods after Canada. And, the private sector sometimes I think has done a bad job in explaining to workers that X percentage of their paychecks comes because of trade with Mexico, or comes because we're building stuff together. When President Trump was talking about applying a 20 percent tariff on Mexican exports, whether it was to pay for the wall or to force Mexico to negotiate NAFTA, what he was missing, Suzette, is that is that the U.S. is no longer building U.S. products, Mexico isn't building Mexican products, and Canada isn't building Canadian products. Why? Because what has happened over the last decade is that our supply chains and production platforms have become unified. So out of every dollar of Mexican exports that come into the U.S., 40 cents - .40 cents - of every dollar of Mexican exports are U.S. content. So we're producing North American goods because all our production chains are integrated.

Sarukhan: So you want to slap 20 percent tariffs on Mexican exports to the U.S. you're going to be slapping 20 percent tariffs on 40 cents of U.S. products that go into the manufacturing of these exports into the United States. So, it's a much more complex scenario. The problem is that all this data doesn't fit in a bumper sticker when you're on a campaign. It's much easier to say NAFTA's the worst deal ever in the history of mankind. And it takes much more time, and it's a much more nuanced discussion to explain to people why, thanks to NAFTA, for example, the United States has been able to maintain its competitiveness vis-a-vis China. President Trump talks about the deficit with Mexico, as a terrible thing. Yes, the United States does have a trade deficit with Mexico, but that trade deficit is equal to 8 percent - 8 percent - of the total U.S. trade deficit with the world. So this is a red herring. The problem is how do we put this data, how do we create a narrative? How do we create personal stories so people can understand why this relationship is so important? And, how and how do we debunk some of the myths that are out there as to what either country is to the neighboring country.

Sarukhan: And that's a big challenge,  and that’s where I think academia, and the media, and governments, and the private sector, and the thousands of everything from Rotary clubs, to little league baseball teams, to soccer leagues that every day cross the Mexican-U.S. border ... it's the busiest border in the world. We've got 1 million legal crossings per day. We trade 1.4 billion with a B dollars a day, of goods in both directions. It is a dynamic that you don't see on any other border on the face of the earth, regardless of the pressing challenges that we do have to ensure our security, to ensure that bad actors don't try to use the border to undermine the security and the well-being of either one of the two neighbors.

Grillot: Let’s talk about Mexico for a second because we've got elections coming up soon. Mexico clearly does struggle with some security issues. We see you know fragmentation of cartels, and you know wars going on among them, and some of the political corruption that's happening. I mean I don't want to leave the US out of this mix because there's stuff going on here too. But let's talk about Mexico for a second because that ... where are we headed term in terms of Mexican domestic politics, because that will hopefully affect the perception of Mexico?

Sarukhan: There's no doubt in my mind that the Achilles heel of Mexico's perceptions in the U.S. has to do with Mexican domestic politics, and the Mexican domestic content. And as long as Mexicans, and successive Mexican governments are unable or unwilling to tackle the issues of impunity, endemic corruption, a weak rule of law, these narratives and perceptions about bad hombres, or rapists, or migrants who are coming here to steal jobs, and to siphon away taxpayer dollars, those will continue to fester. In many ways, one of the best instruments that Mexico has to move the needle in terms of perceptions regarding the country here in the United States is to take on these formidable challenges that Mexico faces, and has faced, for many decades now. Not everything is black and white. There have been some important achievements but the fact is that today Mexico still faces a critical challenge to underscore the rule of law, and to root out corruption. This will be no surprise. One of the main drivers of the Mexican presidential campaign next July, when we go to the polls on July the 1st, it will be impunity, and corruption, and lack of rule of law, and public security. This is going to be one of the main issues along with a meat and potato issue which is the case for most electoral processes, which is the economy and jobs.

Grillot: Along with this issue the domestic political issues, the corruption, the rule of law. I was recently having a conversation with somebody along these lines about the fact that, well, how do you expect Mexican domestic politics to be any different or any better when they have like the world's worst neighbor next door because of the demand for the drug trade. Right. So, they've got a really bad neighbor in the extent that we're encouraging maybe a lot of the bad stuff that's happening in Mexico, simply because we are the largest consumer market and consumer of drugs in the world. What can we do about that? What are the what's the U.S. government going to do it?

Sarukhan: It's undeniable that these issues are co-related. And that's why I've said when people ask me about Trump's wall that, first, this is a first century B.C. solution to 21st century challenges. It's not going to solve the issue of how many drugs cross the border or not. And it has fundamentally grated Mexican public opinion, as it relates to favorability perceptions of the United States. It is also true that a couple of decades ago the United States would wag its finger at Mexico and say most of the drugs coming into the United States come through Mexico, and Mexico would obviously, in a jingoistic and chauvinistic way, retort that if we were the springboard you with a swimming pool.

Sarukhan: About just when I was starting my tenure as ambassador with President George W. Bush in 2007, there was a very striking shift in how Mexico and the United States started talking about issues like drug trafficking, because both governments and this was replicated later by the Obama administration, both governments understood that the only way that we were going to tackle things like transnational organized crime, whether it was drug trafficking or human smuggling, was through a paradigm of joint responsibility. That both countries had to different degrees, and with varying levels of engagement a responsibility and a role to play, in taking on these very tremendous challenges. Because yes, I just said Mexico has a real structural problem with a weak rule of law, and weak police and law enforcement institutions, and impunity and corruption. But we get most of the firepower that the drug syndicates in Mexico use to push back against the state, across the border from the United States. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out why you have more gun shops, and gun shows, along the U.S.-Mexico border than Wal-Mart's because you can't buy guns in Mexico, it's not legal, and therefore these individuals take advantage of the loopholes that allow people in the United States illegally, buy illegal weapons and then cross them over the border into Mexico. So again, this is one example of how the only way we will find solutions to some of our common problems is by an approach based on joint responsibility.

Grillot: Well I hope that we can recognize that. So thank you so much Mr. Ambassador for being here today and talking about this very important issue.

Sarukhan: Thank you for having me.

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