REUTERS — Embarrassed by Donald Trump's rhetoric against Mexico, former World Bank President Robert Zoellick said on Wednesday it is time to "remake" the case for free trade in the United States.
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The U.S. presidential race has been peppered with promises to rework trade policy in the United States' favor, and many of the strongest attacks have been against the North American Free Trade Agreement, a trade accord between the United States, Mexico and Canada that took effect in 1994.
Regarded by Mexican policymakers as a milestone in the country's economic modernization, NAFTA has been vilified by Republican front-runner Trump and Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders as a job-killing betrayal of U.S. industry.
Zoellick, a Republican who also served as U.S. Trade Representative under President George W. Bush, said Mexican officials had understandably been unsettled by Trump's rhetoric and flagging U.S. congressional support for free trade.
"The bigger issue in the U.S. will be a need to remake the case for trade," he said in a phone interview.
That meant more than the traditional corporate lobbying in Congress, said Zoellick, who was World Bank chief from 2007-2012.
"This is now going to need a broader public push. Part of this will be a challenge to get the Facebooks, the Googles the Apples and others to not only make the case in Washington, but actually use social media, use big data resources and others to explain this to coming generations of Americans," he said.
While noting that some Americans had good reason to feel concern about the pace of change and unfettered immigration, Zoellick said Mexico, a "significant, modernizing economy", ought to be integrated further into U.S. thinking.
"If it were up to me, I would bring Canada and Mexico into the TTIP negotiations with Europe," he said, referring to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a planned trade deal between the United States and the European Union.
After China and Canada, Mexico is the United States' third biggest trade partner, accounting for bilateral commerce worth around $500 billion annually. The United States is also home to an estimated 35 million people of Mexican origin.
Claiming Mexico is "killing" the United States on trade and sending rapists and drug runners north, Trump has threatened to impose tariffs against Mexico and vowed to build a wall to stop illegal immigrants crossing the border.
To make Mexico pay for the wall, he has threatened to block billions of dollars in remittances sent home by Mexicans in the United States, a plan Zoellick described as "outrageous."
"As an American, frankly, I'm embarrassed by his statements," he said. However, he noted the Mexican government had to "walk a fine line" in countering Trump without stoking more tensions.
A number of serving and former Mexican officials believe their government could have been more active in persuading U.S. businesses and politicians to make the case that both countries will lose out if Trump's talk becomes reality.
Zoellick said, however, it was a shared responsibility.
"Depending on one's perspective, this is really ... the U.S.'s burden to bear. And so while I concur that one would welcome assistance from Mexico, in some ways we've got to get our own act cleaned up in the U.S. first," he said.