In The Media

Americas strategy? It takes three to tango

by Colin Robertson

Globe and Mail
April 3, 2012

Our size and global placement give Canadians multiple perspectives as we compete in the international market. But these advantages too often distract us, at a time when we need to focus and follow-through.

History and early trading patterns make us an Atlantic nation. With half of all new Canadians coming from Asia, we now have a Pacific outlook that we embrace. Our climate is a constant reminder that we’re also a northern country, and the Harper government has made the Arctic a priority.

As we were reminded by Monday’s trilateral summit in Washington, we are also a nation of the Americas. Our propinquity to the United States has always been a challenge – initially around security, then through cultural seduction – as well as an economic opportunity promised by the world’s biggest market.

For most of our history, with the exception of the Commonwealth Caribbean relationships, we avoided our neighbours south of the Rio Grande. It was a Latin land of dictators and revolutions. Besides, since the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. had staked its hegemony.

NAFTA gave us a serious relationship with Mexico but, as Monday’s summit illustrated, we continue to be a somewhat reluctant partner.

Taking advantage of our shared continent is a good idea, but it requires vision and boldness if we’re to realize the advantage of resources, market and labour. For now, trilateralism is on life support.

As we saw again Monday, these meetings are essentially “dual bilaterals” between Mexico and the U.S. and then, time permitting, between Canada and the U.S. We have to await the outcome of this year’s elections in Mexico and the U.S. before we can revive the North American idea.

Mexico deserves our support in combatting the drug menace as well as in developing its institutions. If we can wage war in Afghanistan and Libya, then surely we can lend a helping hand in our neighbourhood.

We also have increasing commercial interests. The World Bank says Mexico is the easiest place in Latin America to run a business and, by mid-century, Goldman Sachs reckons the country will be the world’s fifth-largest economy, bigger than that of Germany, Russia and Japan.

Meantime, we should be doing useful continental planning around our shared infrastructure – roads and rail, electrical grids and pipelines and at our gateways. And as soon as we fix our made-in-Canada refugee problem, let’s lift the visa for Mexicans.

With the exception of our ongoing commitment to Haiti, Canadian efforts toward the rest of the Americas have been characterized by quixotic spasms of tango-like embrace – joining the Organization of American States and committing to the now-moribund Free Trade Area of the Americas – followed by a long siesta.

The Harper government developed an Americas strategy with an emphasis on democratic governance, prosperity and security. We’ve made progress through a series of boutique trade agreements, but the grand strategy has been slow to take shape. As we approach this month’s Summit of the Americas, it’s ready for a “reset.”

It takes two to tango, and Latin American governments share responsibility for not taking advantage of Canadian interest and opportunities. During Stephen Harper’s visit to Brazil last year, he promised to be ambitious, saying that, for “too long a time we neglected relations. … Too much grass grows in the cracks on the road between out two great countries.”

Ambition is important. But so is perseverance.

Mr. Harper will need to devote more time and energy if we’re to demonstrate that there are more steps in our dance repertoire. The Canadian business community is engaged. Our mining companies are especially active, and our banks have long had a presence in the Caribbean that has since expanded, notably into Mexico.

Business can be a driving force for taking the relationship to the next level. Twenty years of freer trade has given Canadian companies experience and confidence that they can compete on the wider world stage. As we have learned in Asia, however, our commercial interests are advanced when ministers are there to show the flag.

For Canadians, the U.S. market and relationship will always remain No. 1, and we can take some comfort from Barack Obama’s promise on Monday to make the border “faster and cheaper to travel and trade.”

But the slow economic recovery increases the likelihood of renewed protectionism. Even when it’s not aimed at Canada, we are always at risk through collateral damage. It’s why, while we need always to keep our focus on the U.S., we should look to other markets in the Americas, starting with Mexico. And if we’re to keep the grass from growing back in the cracks, we need a good plan, perseverance and senior political level follow-through.

Colin Robertson, a former diplomat, is vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a senior strategic adviser at McKenna, Long & Aldridge LLP.


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