It would be one thing if the U.S. and Mexico were opponents on a tennis court, a net strung between them, with each point scored on one side representing a point lost on the other side.
But they are not.
They are next-door neighbors, and while there may be physical barriers separating them, each one has a considerable stake in the economic health and success of the other. That's important for trade negotiators to remember as they begin talks this week on fixing the North American Free Trade Agreement.
One area where all sides should be able to agree is the codification of labor and environmental standards into the agreement. In the original pact, those critical topics were relegated to unenforceable sidebars, leaving no mechanism to improve wages in Mexico and undercutting NAFTA's promise of greater prosperity across the continent. Poorly paid Mexican workers can't afford the cars built in the U.S. and Canada.
Cheap labor is a major driver of Mexico's manufacturing success, along with its trade agreements around the globe. Mexico's track record on labor standards isn't good. Workers often complain that union bosses are bought off to keep wages down and let companies slide on promised benefits such as grocery vouchers and productivity bonuses. Mexico has also kept its minimum wage artificially low at about $5 a day, mindful that it must compete against China.
Forcing Mexico's hand on labor and environmental standards won't fix the wage gap overnight, but unlike tariffs and "buy American" campaigns, it will help get NAFTA back on track toward its promise of a broadly prosperous North American neighborhood, which is ultimately good for cross-border relations and the health of the auto industry.