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,"
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. …