Jack Granatstein and Chris Sands, both distinguished members of MLI's Research Advisory Board, have recently written about the importance of Mexico to Canada and the U.S., and we have posted their comments here on the MLI blog. We did so in part because here north of the U.S. border, it is too easy for Canadians to forget that Mexico is our other partner, with the U.S., in North American free trade.

But as Jason Clemens, Niels Veldhuis and I argue in MLI's first book, The Canadian Century: Moving out of America's shadow, Canada has always been ambivalent about the southern-most partner in this love triangle.

Canadians charged with representing Canada's interests have come increasingly to regret allowing Mexico's clever manoeuvering in the 1990s to pull us into a three-cornered relationship with Washington and Mexico City. The anxiety is growing that Canada's relationship with the U.S. will be held hostage to the very different relationship with Mexico City, on the grounds that Washington always has in the back of its mind that whatever is given to Canada must eventually be granted to Mexico.

Canada needs to remember, though, that we were first to the bilateral table with the FTA, and that we have a great many other bilateral institutions, such as the International Joint Commission and NORAD, that do not involve Mexico. If America sees bilateral negotiations with Ottawa as a way to realise objectives they hold dear, they will not hesitate to sit down with us one on one. But we should not reject out of hand either making common cause with the Mexicans on issues where our combined negotiating power may help us to win a better deal from America.

In fact if we think back to the notion that successful negotiations will require that Canada must be able to show America that we can be part of the solution to their problems, then Mexico can be an opportunity as well as a distraction. Remember that Mexico looms large in the American political imagination right now. Mexican immigration as well as movement of the American population closer to the Mexican border means that Mexican issues will always get a lot of attention in Washington. Beyond that, however, the Americans are deeply concerned about the possibility of the emergence of a failed state on their southern border. This reason perhaps more than any other explains how Mexico ended up at the NAFTA table: the U.S. administration thought that giving access to North American markets and prosperity today was a better solution than facing tens of millions of refugees from a failed state later.

We earned points and bargaining weight in Washington by being part of helping them with their worries about Mexico. We saw another example recently when Prime Minister Harper offered financial assistance and police training to Guadalajara, to Mexico's delight and Washington's relief. In other words, we must neither embrace nor reject involvement with Mexico indiscriminately. Where engagement with the Mexicans increases our bargaining power with Washington, we should engage. Where bilateralism is more likely to protect and promote Canadians interests, that should be our policy.

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