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U.S.-Mexico relationship remains strong

Shannon O'Neil, Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies with the Council on Foreign Relations

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: President Obama is meeting with his Mexican counterpart today in Mexico City. He and President Felipe Calderon will talk national security, the drug trade and the global economic crisis all in just a few short hours. Then they will both head out to Trinidad and Tobago for a Summit of the Americas conference later this week.

The U.S.-Mexico relationship is long and it's complicated. Shannon O'Neil is the Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Shannon, good to have you with us.

Shannon O'Neil: Nice to be here.

Ryssdal: Give us a sense, would you, of the state of the economic relationship between the United States and Mexico.

O'Neil: The economic relationship with the U.S. and Mexico is really quite strong. Since NAFTA came into effect 15 years ago, trade between the two nations has tripled. And it's the most important trading relationship in many ways for both countries -- or particularly for states in the United States. So it's the third-largest trading partner for the United States and it's the second-largest destination of U.S. exports. So it's quite important.

Ryssdal: And yet all we've been hearing in the lead up to this trip by the president is: drug violence, the prospect of Mexico as a failed state, how NAFTA really hasn't worked out for Mexico. How do you explain that difference?

O'Neil: You know, U.S.-Mexico relations goes through its patterns. And as happens in many relationships, you focus on the complaints rather than the positives, at least in the discussion. So that's really what's happening here. We're focused on the violence -- which is really, and has increased in the last several months -- but in many ways, the real substance of the relationship and the positives fall by the wayside in those sound bytes.

Ryssdal: You know, there's some analysis out there from the intelligence community comparing a rapid deterioration in Mexico's domestic security situation, with all this drug violence, to the problems that Pakistan is having and the degree to which a Mexican issue on those lines would be as big a problem to us as Pakistan is. Do you buy that?

O'Neil: I buy that Mexico's security and stability is as or more important than Pakistan for the United States because our economies are so tied, because we share a 2,000 mile border, because Mexican immigrants are the largest source of immigrants to the United States. But there's a big difference between Mexico and Pakistan. Mexico is a thriving democracy. It has a strong economy. And it has a lot of things. It's really searching for stability and strengthening of its states and combating the drug trade. So in Mexico we have a partner in a way that one questions at time with Pakistan. It's a much more uneasy relationship with Pakistan than it is with Mexico.

Ryssdal: What's your sense of whether the United States is meeting its obligations in this bilateral relationship. Both in terms of trade and the drug war and other issues as well.

O'Neil: It has to be a mutual situation. And so the United States is stepping forward on many of these issues. There's, of course, further steps that they could take, as well as the Mexicans. So I think right now it's between Calderon and Obama sort of feeling how the U.S.-Mexico relation is going to develop.

The United States is also now starting to talk about the guns that come from the United States, flow south to the cartels, as well as money that comes from the United States from purchases here of drugs and then down to the cartels there. And actually just today the Obama administration announced that several of the cartels have been put on a Treasury watch list that will help, in terms of seizing assets of cartels and shutting down the businesses that launder money.

Ryssdal: Well what are President Calderon's obligations then?

O'Neil: Well President Calderon's obligations there are to continue being a good partner on his side, right? So on the security, he needs to continue aggressively combating the drug cartels and really working to root out the corruption and other issues within his system. He needs to continue working on the economic side to make his country an attractive place for U.S. investment, but also to work through some of the issues and the tensions that we have on both sides. But so far he seems quite willing to do this and has been taking steps that way.

Ryssdal: Shannon O'Neil, she's a fellow in Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Shannon, thanks a lot.

O'Neil: It's my pleasure.

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