Border States Forge Their Own Foreign Policy ; Common Interests Drive US and Mexican Governors to Reach across Tortilla Curtain

Article excerpt

They meet several times a year, negotiate trade and environmental agreements with foreign powers, and trade war stories about what it's like to run a government.

No, they're not members of President Clinton's Cabinet (although one supposes they do this too), and they're not part of some secretive New World Order.

They're the governors of America's four Southwestern border states and their six Mexican counterparts. And their annual Border Governors Conferences and bimonthly talk-shops are a sign of not just how much warmer US-Mexican relations have grown since the days of General Pershing and Pancho Villa, but also how the balance of power is shifting subtly from Washington to state capitals.

"There's always been international cooperation at the citizen-to- citizen, business-to-business, city-to-city level," says Julie Blase, a researcher in US-Mexican trade at the University of Texas at Austin. But the increasing role of states in setting foreign policy is unusual in American history, she says, and it's growing so fast that "it's outpacing current law on both sides of the border."

It's hard to imagine such a relationship burgeoning under a hands- on, controlling president like Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, or Richard Nixon. But since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1996, states have begun driving foreign policy under the motto that all politics is local, even when the foreign nation lives next door.

It's an arrangement that has largely escaped controversy, in part because federal officials in Washington and Mexico City still retain final word on any treaty. But experts say the results of all this state involvement may be felt in important ways, on everything from trade ties to the environment and even labor relations.

Driving the new state involvement in US-Mexican policies are several factors, most prominently the integration of the US and Mexican economies under NAFTA, says Kevin Middlebrook, director of the Center for US- Mexican Studies at the University of California at San Diego. Drawing together these two different countries, with their distinct legal systems and business cultures, "requires the involvement of state governors in ways that weren't so in the past," he says.

But state-to-state relations go back before NAFTA, to 1979, when Republican Gov. Bill Clements of Texas and Democratic Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona asked President Jimmy Carter for permission to meet with the Mexican governors to talk about common problems.

"Our common goal is that we have a common border, and we're all dependent on each other's trade," says Jorge Garces, chief negotiator under Mr. Clements and now under Gov. George W. Bush. "We also have a very large Hispanic population, so the region has an identity that you don't find anywhere else in the US. …