Flake: Building ‘fortress America’ won’t help economic growth

Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake said turning the United States into a ‘fortress’ won’t help it grow economically in the global market. (Photo by Sophia Kunthara/Cronkite News)

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, said the U.S. needs to realize that Mexico has the world’s 20th-largest economy and trade between the countries will help both. (Photo by Sophia Kunthara/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – America cannot grow economically if it closes the borders to commerce and builds “fortress America,” Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, said Wednesday at a conference on U.S.-Mexico trade.

Flake, the keynote speaker at the Woodrow Wilson Center Mexico Institute’s “Building a Competitive U.S.-Mexico Border” conference, said the strong trade partnership between the U.S. and its southern neighbor is key for economic growth – something he said the likely presidential nominees do not appear to understand.

“The top candidates, the top two on each side, have made statements that are hardly free-trade friendly,” Flake said, without naming either Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump.

Flake highlighted Mexico as an important trading partner for both the U.S. and Arizona. Trade between the two countries topped $500 billion in 2015, according to the U.S. Office of Trade Representative. Arizona did more than $17 billion in business in 2015 with Mexico, making it the state’s largest trade partner.

That relationship needs to be maintained, he said.

“How in the world do we expect to grow economically and to compete in the global marketplace if we shut down our borders and build ‘fortress America’ and shun these free trade agreements?” Flake asked.

Flake’s comments come during a campaign season in which Trump has promised that, if elected, he would build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico that he says he would make the Mexican government pay for.

“We struggle with those in our party, many of whom talk about walls and things like that, as well as the other party,” Flake said. “We’ve got to make a bipartisan effort to make that sure we have our priorities straight.

“Obviously have good security,” he said, “but we need to talk more about commerce.”

Flake said many Americans don’t appreciate the fact that Mexico has the 20th-largest economy in the world.

Chris Wilson, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, said many Americans have an outdated perception of Mexico, one that “involves somebody with a big sombrero sleeping under a cactus.” But Wilson said Mexico is a middle-income country and a strong trade partner of the U.S.

“That means we have a partner in manufacturing, we have a partner in production, we have a huge market right next door that we can sell to,” Wilson said.

Wilson added production partnerships across our borders with Mexico and Canada make the continent as a whole more competitive in the global market. But he said that making the U.S.-Mexico trade relationship more competitive will require that the border be managed more efficiently and that barriers like long wait times to cross into the U.S. or Mexico be eliminated.

Flake said the U.S. cannot “turn a blind eye to globalization” and that ultimately walling ourselves off from Mexico will not contribute to economic growth.

“How are we going to have 2, 3, 4 percent economic growth if we wall ourselves off?” Flake said. “Where has that ever succeeded around the world?”

-Cronkite News video by Veronica Acosta