Half a century ago, the per capita GDP of Mexico was double that of South Korea. Today, the per capita GDP of that nation is three times superior to ours. Beyond the strategy that South Korea followed in its development, it is evident that, first, it did indeed have a strategy and, second, that it was inclusive, razing the regional differences that had characterized it. That was yesterday; today, South Korea faces the greatest existential challenge since its birth. I ask myself whether there is a lesson here for Mexicans.
Fortunately, the North Korean missile crisis is nothing like the crisis Mexico is experiencing with our neighbor to the North. However, in all seriousness, Mexico is confronting an existential challenge in terms of its development, and in that there are relevant lessons that, at least in concept, are of similar nature.
Let’s take this step by step. First, I have read and heard various experts* state that the matter has ended up falling into the hands of the South Korean government. China as well as the United States, each for its own reasons, has proven to be impotent before the threat. China, it is attested, would have the possibility of imposing conditions on the Pyongyang regime, achieving with that a moderation of its nuclear escalation, although it is not evident that doing so would be in its interest: for China the risk is greater of having a regime militarily aligned with the United States on its border than the threat of Kim Jong-un. The United States declares it has the military capacity to destroy key nuclear installations, while it is increasingly clear that its capacity is not utilizable due to the inherent risks in its employment. On its part, South Korea is the country running the greatest risk in this, given that its main and capital city, Seoul, is localized a few dozens of kilometers from the border. Given this scenario, what Seoul will do is more crucial than what the two powers involved will.
South Korea and the United States have been allies since the fifties; that alliance includes a vast U.S. military presence in Korean territory and guarantees of joint action in case of conflict. Notwithstanding that, for South Korea, the Trump government is proving less and less reliable than Korea would prefer and the risks are increasingly greater, all of these for the Korean population. When would be the right time for Seoul to break with the military alliance in exchange for peace with Pyongyang and the disappearance of the nuclear threat?
Of course, there is no parallel of the predicament confronting the Seoul regime with the dilemmas we Mexicans are facing: theirs are of life and death, ours are of development. Both cannot be equated in dimension, but they can in concept. Both are encountering avatars ordained by an equivocal and vacillating government in Washington, which obliges both to make fundamental decisions on their future. I am certain that the South Koreans would prefer to be encountering Mexico’s dilemmas than theirs, but ours are no less transcendent because of that.
For South Korea, the dilemma appears to lie in its own internal strength: Does it possess the capacity to advance its interests and protect its population without its alliance with the United States? Not a trivial problem, above all when the risk is incommensurable: anyone who has visited the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea understands what fear tastes like and immediately comprehends why the site is denominated “the most dangerous place on earth.” For Mexico, the question is whether it can develop sources of internal trust and certainty that would allow us to diminish the importance of NAFTA for the economic viability of the country.
Each nation has its own history and Mexico’s does not include, fortunately, existential risks of the magnitude confronting the Koreans. Nevertheless, the existential for us deals with the poverty that afflicts a good part of the South of the country and an integral part of the solution dwells of the absence of internal sources of trust and certainty that, without NAFTA, might hinder the attracting of investment, the essence of any development strategy and of combatting poverty.
The dilemma is conceptually simple: the central reason for NAFTA, the core objective that the government of President Salinas sought to procure with that instrument, was the generation of the trust of the investors with the purpose of creating sources of wealth and employment in Mexico. Without NAFTA, Mexico would be exposed, plain and simple, because we have done nothing during these decades to solidify a regime of the rule of law equal to that which NAFTA creates. That, more than anything else, is what is involved in this complex Kabuki dance –the Japanese theater and drama in which it is never clear where one stands- that Mexico is now playing with the Americans.
The negotiations obviously have to continue, but the essential part is not what a president who gets up at 4 a.m. to tweet what suddenly occurred to him, but instead what we are going to do to build certainty and legality inside Mexico. No more and no less. Our vulnerability is great but not existential: therein lies the central lesson. “The strength of a country,” said a finance minister of a European country,” is reflected in its capacity to confront crisis situations.” Is Mexico strong?