RCC Honors History Project

Bill Bradley: Support for Free Trade Agreement

Posted by nrohr on June 8, 2009


By the early 1990s, Mexico had emerged as one of the United States’ leading trading partners. Recognizing Mexico’s growing importance to the American economy, the George Bush administration negotiated a sweeping free-trade agreement with Mexico. The agreement, known as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), eliminated all trade barriers between the United States, Mexico, and Canada, effectively turning North America into a common market. The treaty, however, faced a major obstacle in the form of Congress. Although many economists hailed NAFTA as a certain economic boon to the United States, the Democratic majority in Congress viewed it warily. Many Democrats feared that NAFTA’s passage would devastate working-class Americans by making it easier for corporations to move factories to Mexico, where labor is much cheaper than in the United States. In the speech from April 1991 excerpted below, Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey broke ranks with his fellow Democrats and called for the passage of the free-trade agreement. Although the Bush administration failed to win Congressional approval for NAFTA in 1991, the election of Bill Clinton to the presidency in 1992 gave it another chance. Like Bradley, Clinton was a pro-NAFTA Democrat, and after weeks of heavy lobbying by Clinton, Congress finally passed NAFTA in an extremely close vote in the fall of 1993.

Source: Vital Speeches of the Day, May 15, 1991.


So what can we say about this world? First, we no longer stand unchallenged economically, nor only opposite the U.S.S.R. We spent a lot of our economic productivity during the Cold War on insuring ourselves against a military threat from a Soviet Union whose economic and social foundations were full of termites. Then, just at the time Mikhail Gorbachev, George Bush, and John LeCarre declared the Cold War over; just at the time Germany reunites, and 100,000 Soviet citizens were permitted to leave; just at the time when we felt we were turning a page of history, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Was his action the beginning of a new kind of conflict or the end of the old? And was our response the beginning of a new world order or the culmination of the old order?

From the standpoint of the Wilsonian vision for collective security, the war to free Kuwait ranks with World War II and the containment of Soviet expansion in terms of its success. Its message is loud and clear. A dictator who invades another country risks the collective condemnation of the nations of the world and the quick destruction of his army. Yet it may also signal the dawning of an age when even the most skilled collective security cannot prevent the violence that lies ahead. . . .

For newly freed peoples seeking ways to live together peacefully in Central and Eastern Europe, in Africa, within the borders of what is still the Soviet Union, and elsewhere, American leadership depends more on the example of the kind of the country we build than on our military might. And the most powerful example is that of a pluralistic society whose democracy and growing economy takes all its citizens to the higher ground.

But we can’t lead by example as long as white Americans build mental walls between themselves and the abysmal living conditions of many black Americans in our cities. We can’t lead by example if we allow gangs to turn city neighborhoods into war zones and schools into fortresses so that the 10 percent of the kids who don’t want to learn destroy the possibility of learning for the 90 percent who do. We can’t lead by example if individuals refuse to take responsibility for their own actions or government bureaucrats remain unaccountable for results. We can’t lead by example if it’s easier for us to put a man on the moon than to get a low-income pregnant women across town to a doctor. We can’t lead by example if we fail to see that crime often causes poverty and destroys the interracial bonds of civil society.

In facing up to the realities of race and ethnicity in America today, we must also observe that the isolation of urban black poverty developed first from our failure to respond to an economic migration of five million people—African Americans moving from the sharecropping farms of the South to the cities of the North.

Racial, ethnic, and religious conflict is sometimes inseparable from the conflict of economic migration. Open borders to Eastern Europe unleash ethnic fears for the people of homogenous countries in Western Europe. Riots in Marseilles, violence in London, and xenophobia in Germany come from fears of actual and potential migrations from Asia, North Africa, Poland, and the Soviet Union. When large groups of people move from one place to another—things change.

One of the most dramatic economic migrations in the world is occurring along the 2,000-mile border between the United States and Mexico. It’s more than “the only frontier between the industrialized and developing worlds.” As writer Carlos Fuentes has said, it’s also the gulf between 15th Century Spain and 18th Century England. It separates our cultures as well as our economies, but the comparative economic opportunity in the United States increasingly will pull Mexico’s best people north, leaving Mexico with the unskilled and America with a massive social problem. That is why understanding the dynamics of economic migration will allow us to control it, forestall its most disruptive economic effects and to lessen the ethnic, racial, and religious tensions that could follow. . . .

Now, nearly 20 million people live in Mexico City choking on air pollution. It was Mexican policies that tried to keep Mexico an anti-American island in a sea of good faith attempts to bridge our differences.

But since President Carlos Salinas, a Harvard-educated economist, took office two years ago, the economic and political changes in Mexico have been as profound as in any country on the globe. Last August, Salinas proposed the most significant step for his country’s future, a free-trade agreement with the United States. In February, President Bush and Prime Minister Mulroney of Canada joined Salinas to begin negotiations on a North American free-trade zone.

There is only one thing you really need to know about Mexico to understand why the free-trade agreement is so critical to Salinas: Half of Mexico’s 80 million people are under the age of 15. Beginning right now, either jobs will be created below the Rio Grande, in places such as Doctor Coss, or there will be more and more legal and illegal immigration into Texas, California, Oklahoma, Kansas and even to New York and Florida. That economic migration will dwarf the migration of black Americans to the North.

I believe Congress should support a maximum effort to complete the negotiations successfully. It will not be easy. There are legitimate problems but a good free-trade agreement would be of great benefit to the United States. It could add dynamism to our economy, creating thousands of jobs and making us more competitive in world markets. It could transform our southern border and enrich our national culture.

But the Mexican Free Trade Agreement will be controversial. There will be thoughtful and constructive opposition. Such a major development in our economic lives deserves such thorough debate. But if we view the proposed free-trade agreement as one inseparable component of overall reform in Mexico, I cannot see any strong argument for not attempting to get an agreement.

We don’t always see Mexico as its people would want us to see them. Opponents of the free-trade pact see Mexico’s politics as hopelessly corrupt and undemocratic. Yet Salinas appears to be using his political legitimacy, rather than police power, to bring about reform. And while two-party democracy has not arrived everywhere, it is alive in several states near our border. Opponents of the free-trade pact still see it as a country happily lax in its environmental regulation—yet the mayor of Mexico City told me that he is spending $3.5 billion over four years to clean up the air. Opponents of the trade pact still see Mexico as a stubbornly inefficient, politically stagnant nation unwilling to give up the temporary benefits of inflation, budget deficits, and government ownership of key economic sectors. But Salinas has cut his country’s budget deficit by the equivalent of three Gramm-Rudman acts. He has brought inflation down dramatically, reduced tariffs, encouraged foreign investment, and privatized many state enterprises, such as telephones. Opponents of the trade pact see Mexico as inward-looking, and yet Mexico now turns outward, ready to tear down that last frontier between the developing and the industrial world, ready to try to become a first-world nation.

The negotiations over a free-trade pact with Mexico will be a test of whether Americans and Mexicans can overcome their stereotypes and suspicions of each other in pursuit of a larger goal—a more productive economy on both sides of the border. Can we be bold and imaginative enough to create the conditions that will enhance our children’s future? Do we have the courage to face the fact that their chances for a better life depends on raising our productivity, which in turn depends on a commitment to quality at home and finding common ground abroad?


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