February 14, 2014 | By Dina Smeltz

In Advance of the Three Amigos Summit

Coinciding with NAFTA’s 20th anniversary year, President Obama along with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper are slated to discuss trade, investment and security issues next week at the North American Summit in Toluca, Mexico.

To help shed light on public perceptions of the US-Mexico relationship in advance of North American Summit in Toluca, Mexico next week, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs partnered with Centro de Estudios Sociales y de Opinión Pública (CESOP), Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE), Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM), and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute to carry out just-released opinion surveys in Mexico and the United States (see methodology at end of posting). Findings show that while government officials have been hoping to diversify bilateral policies beyond drug trafficking, organized crime and border security, the Mexican and American publics are not quite ready to let go of the traditional security issues.

Both Countries Viewed as Mutually Important: Americans and Mexicans recognize the importance of their neighbor to their country’s role in the world. Eight in ten Mexicans believe the United States is important for Mexico (79%).  Seven in ten Americans said the same thing about Mexico in April 2013 (69%).Both sides also agree that current bilateral relations are positive:  six in ten Mexicans (59%) and Americans (60%) say that current relations between the two countries are good.

There is a hint of resentment behind Mexican opinion, however, with a plurality (42%) saying that Mexico cooperates with the US “more than it should.” Twenty-three percent say it cooperates less than it should, and 22 percent say cooperation is about right.

US Image in Mexico Down but Still Favorable; Mexico image in US At a New Low: On a scale from 0 to 100, in which 100 is a very favorable opinion and 0 is a very unfavorable opinion, Mexicans give the United States an average rating of 64, down from recent ratings, especially from an average of 75 in 2006 (according to CIDE surveys).  For their part, Americans give Mexico an average of 36, down from 43 in April 2013, and lower than at any point since 1994 (when Mexico’s average rating was 57).

Mexicans More Aware than Americans of Depth of Cross-Border Trade: Americans and Mexicans tend to say the United States and Mexico are working in the same direction on trade and economic development (51% in Mexico, 57% in US). Majorities in each country also characterize the other country as an economic partner (51% of Mexicans, 64% of Americans) rather than a competitor (31% of Mexicans, 33% of Americans). However, Mexicans are much more attuned to the extent of cross-border economic integration. Six in ten Mexicans (58%) are aware that Mexico is one of the United States’ top five trading partners, compared to just two in ten Americans (20%).

Assessments of NAFTA More Favorable:Twenty years after NAFTA was signed, Mexicans have increasingly recognized the benefits of cross-border trade. Opinion of the trade agreement has shifted over the past 10 years, with majorities now saying that NAFTA is good for the Mexican economy (64%, compared to 44% in 2004), creating jobs in Mexico (60% vs. 49% in 2004), and Mexican companies (65% vs. 50% in 2004). Mexicans continue to believe, however, that NAFTA is more beneficial for the United States, with 72 percent saying NAFTA is good for the US economy and 67 percent saying it is good for creating American jobs. Over time, however, the gap in perceptions of greater benefits for the United States over Mexico has narrowed.

For their part, Americans have also grown more positive toward NAFTA.  According to April 2013 results, 50 percent of Americans say NAFTA is good for the US economy (compared to 42% in 2004), good for American companies (55% vs. 50% in 2004), and good for creating jobs in the United States (38% vs. 31% 2004). But far more Americans continue to believe that NAFTA has greater benefits for the Mexican economy (70% good) and creating jobs in Mexico (69%), unchanged since 2004.

Canadians may be the most enthusiastic participants in NAFTA. A separate EKOS poll in Canada (not part of this project) conducted in the Fall of 2013 found that a large majority of Canadians (80%) also agree that there should be free trade between the US, Canada and Mexico.  Solid but smaller majorities in Mexico (74%) and the US (65%) agree.

Publics Want to Keep Security Focus: While Mexican and American officials have recently tried to emphasize the potential in the economic relationship between Mexico and the United States, more Mexicans (51%) say it is important for the future of the US-Mexico relationship to keep the attention on security issues such as border control and drug trafficking than say there needs to be a greater emphasis on economic, trade, and energy issues (38%). Americans are even more emphatic about staying focused on security. By a 7 to 2 margin, Americans believe it is more important to keep government attention on security issues (72%) than to put greater emphasis on economy, trade, and energy (23%).

Mexicans are more likely than Americans to say that the two countries are working in the same direction—rather than in different directions—on securing the border (51% of Mexicans, 34% Americans), combating drug trafficking (56% Mexicans, 43% Americans), and combating organized crime (51% Mexicans, 41% Americans).   A majority of Mexicans (53%) also believe that US assistance to Mexico to combat drug trafficking has been helpful, with 43 percent saying it has not been helpful.

Majority in Mexico Oppose Private Investment in Energy, Telecom Sectors: Americans tend to think the United States and Mexico are working in different directions (53% to 42% same) to develop new energy sources. Mexican opinion is mixed, with about as many saying they are working in the same (43%) and in different (45%) directions.  However, a decisive majority of Mexicans oppose the government allowing foreign investment in Mexican oil production, distribution and exploration (68%).  Majorities also oppose private investment in telecommunication (55%). While President Nieto has managed to push through reforms that open the oil refining/transport/storage and communication sectors to private investment, he has yet to turn around long-standing public opposition to these changes.  


The Mexican survey is based on face-to-face interviews conducted December 11 to 16, 2013, among a nationwide sample of 1,000 Mexican adults. US survey results are based on two separate surveys conducted online by GfK for The Chicago Council, the first from April 12 to 15, 2013, and the second from February 7 to 10, 2014. The samples were national and consisted of 1,017 and 1,029 Americans, respectively. Unless noted as an April 2013 survey, the American results cited are from February 2014.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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