In The Media

Snapping cameras, snappy rhetoric and a nod to the North American idea

by Colin Robertson

April 2, 2012

When Barack Obama welcomes Stephen Harper and Felipe Calderon into the Oval Office on Monday, the leaders will smile and the cameras will click.

But will there be anything more to report than the usual bromides about the need for greater co-operation and collaboration at this latest iteration of the three amigos?

Probably not.

Sadly, the idea of closer economic integration creating an uber-North America — effectively a customs union between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico that would marry resources, labour and market — is on life-support.

For Stephen Harper, the first priority is on making the Canada-U.S. border more accessible, while enthusiastically embracing a ‘Trade R Us’ approach through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal with the European Union and a smorgasbord of bilateral agreements. For Barack Obama, the priority is on creating jobs against what is shaping up as another polarizing election. For Felipe Calderon, the focus continues to be on battling the drug cartels. Calderon is in his last months as president and the July election will likely see the defeat of his party and the return of the long dominant establishment PRI.

Since NAFTA, the continental association has seldom gone beyond a pleasant conversation on aspirations, with a couple of notable exceptions including pandemic planning in the wake of H1N1 or, as it was initially known, the Mexican swine flu. Unfortunately, the substance of the ‘trilateral’ summits quickly descends first into the U.S. relationship with Mexico, because Mexican issues are top of mind for the American president, and then, time permitting, the U.S. relationship with Canada.

This dual bilateralism has left Canadian practitioners with the view that Canadian interests are better advanced dealing directly with the United States. They are mostly right although, as we’re learning yet again in the latest initiative to expedite border access, if getting the framework agreement is difficult, achieving measurable results is an even bigger hurdle. It requires consistent effort and continuing high-level instruction to shift a post 9-11 bureaucratic mindset that has still to understand that you can have both secure frontiers and economic integration.

NAFTA, the anchor for trilateralism, has never enjoyed the popular acclaim that it deserves.

Canada was initially a reluctant partner – we signed on for reasons similar to what is taking us into the Trans-Pacific Partnership – so as to avoid becoming a spoke in the American hub.

For the Americans, the decision was strategic: give Mexico a hand-up that would create jobs, a market and keep Mexican migrants at home. It worked, but only to a degree. Many of the maquiladoras that initially sprung up across the U.S. border have long since been dismantled and reassembled in China. Mexico’s northern states are now a war zone. In the USA, NAFTA has become a synonym for job loss and outsourcing.

It’s too bad because NAFTA did what was intended for all three partners. From 1994-2001, NAFTA trade tripled and foreign investment quintupled among the partners. Intra-regional trade accounted for 46 per cent of the three amigos international trade — up from 36 per cent in 1988.

Then came 9-11.

America reasserted its borders and a combination of the rise of China, slowing economies and the existential war with the cartels saw intra-regional trade slide back towards its pre-NAFTA levels.

At Waco in 2005, George W. Bush tried to revive the trilateral idea with the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP). But the SPP suffered from too many little objectives (over 400) without focus or political will. While the North American Competitiveness Council did good work, its pro-business orientation made it an anathema to the new Obama regime and the SPP process petered out.

It’s too bad because a key feature of globalization is the successful development of intra-regional trade – Europe showed the way and now Asia and Latin America are following suit. With labour, resources and the biggest market in the world, North America is well placed.

But it requires a willingness to look at the kind of bold ideas outlined in Robert Pastor’s vision of a continental future, The North American Idea (2011). A tireless champion of the North American idea, Pastor makes a solid argument for a customs union involving labor mobility and coordinated infrastructure, with a special focus on energy and transportation.

The energy dimension is further explored by the Peterson Institute’s Jeff Schott and Meera Frickling. In their useful NAFTA and Climate Change (2011), they recommend harmonized renewable energy standards, regional cap-and-trade regimes, and a coordinated mapping of carbon capture and storage sites.

The ideas are there. So is the potential for growth.

Canadians are well aware of the importance of the U.S. market, but we sometimes forget that Mexico is more than a cheap winter holiday. The World Bank and International Finance Corporation’s Doing Business 2011 report declared this NAFTA partner as the easiest place in Latin America to run a company. The International Monetary Fund says Mexico’s economic growth will eclipse that of the U.S. and Canada from now until 2015, and Goldman Sachs predicts that in 40 years Mexico will be the world’s fifth-largest economy — bigger than Russia, Japan or Germany.

Canadian companies, like Bombardier, RIM and Magna, already have a significant manufacturing presence in Mexico as part of their North American supply chain. Walk down any main street in Mexico City and you are likely to see the red and white signature of Scotiabank, now Mexico’s sixth largest retail bank.

We have opportunities in Mexico and a useful outcome of today’s meeting would be an announcement that we are lifting the visa requirement for Mexicans that was clumsily imposed in July 2009. Designed to assuage our refugee determination system, a made-in-Canada problem, it has since been corrected by legislation.

Alas, in current circumstances there is neither the political will nor popular support for the North American idea. This is why at today’s trilateral summit we should not expect much beyond a photo and aspirational declarations of good intentions.

But, after a two-year hiatus, that it is even happening at all is cause for cheer. While we await more propitious circumstances, the North American idea remains alive.

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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