Bush's Foreign-Policy Focus Closer to Home ; Visits to Mexico, Canada, Reflect Shift in Emphasis, with Free Trade a Top Priority

Article excerpt

With a visit this week from the Canadian prime minister and a trip to Mexico planned for Feb. 16, President Bush has begun what he calls a new foreign-policy emphasis on the Western Hemisphere.

In doing so, Mr. Bush is trying to start his White House tenure with an agenda that plays to his strengths - including his friendship with Mexico's President Vicente Fox.

Yet in taking on the Western Hemisphere, Bush will face difficult issues that have been simmering for years, including the expansion of free-trade agreements, drug trafficking in Colombia, and troubling political developments in Venezuela.

Although President Clinton made improvements in some of these areas, he was criticized for not having a comprehensive regional policy and lacking long-term focus. Analysts say Bush will have a hard time reversing that trend.

"I expect the Bush administration to continue the Clinton policy of focusing on trade rather than dealing with issues like poverty and social justice," says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs here.

After meeting this week with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Bush was optimistic he could gain ground in free trade, a contentious topic in the United States.

"I want the people of my country to understand that a foreign- policy priority of my administration will be this hemisphere," Bush said. "And we have great opportunities in this hemisphere to spread prosperity throughout."

South of the border

Bush's first test could come during the visit to Mexico. Although Bush will surely applaud the democratic election of Mr. Fox, which ended decades of one-party rule in Mexico, he will also have to confront some subtle disagreements between the US and its southern neighbor.

For one, Fox has proposed opening the 2,000-mile border for immigration and labor, which is troubling to many in the US. Also, Mexico is urging Washington to change its policy of holding an annual congressional review of Mexico's drug policy, which has been a steady source of embarrassment. Instead, Mexican officials have said, the US should work with them as an equal partner on drug issues, to stem both the supply and demand.

After his trip to Mexico, Bush is expected to meet in Washington with the president of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Brazil is considered to be the region's linchpin, yet it has had differences with the US on key topics, including how to stop the regional cocaine trade.

But the meeting between Mr. Cardoso and Bush will probably focus on something different: the April 20 Summit of the Americas, to be held in Quebec City, Canada.

At the summit, Bush is expected to try to cement a long-term US goal of creating free trade within the hemisphere, all the way from Antarctica to Alaska. …