A vision of North America

Reagan’s hopes for a greater role for a power bloc of the United States, Canada and Mexico has dimmed.


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Ronald Reagan intuitively believed in the notion of a North America, distinct in history, geography, shared identity, values and destiny.

His announcement in November 1979 that he was a candidate for the presidency included the surprising aspiration for “a North American accord” that would enable the United States, Canada and Mexico together to make the continent “the strongest, most prosperous and self-sufficient area on earth.” It could “show the world by example that the nations of North America are ready, within an unswerving commitment to freedom, to seek new forms of accommodation to meet a changing world.”

In 35 years, the world has changed more profoundly than imaginable back then. Strengthening the common economic North American home base to meet new conditions of rising competition and weakened multilateral institutions should have ringing political appeal in all three countries.

But on the day-to-day political level, North America is more divided than ever.

Mr. Reagan’s vision encouraged Canadian and Mexican partners to forge together with the United States the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA generated the gains in prosperity that Mr. Reagan believed were obtainable. But today those gains are banked, taken for granted. They were very real, especially for Canada. Moreover, the “identity” damage many Canadian cultural nationalists feared from closer economic integration with the United States never happened.

But 9/​11 created a homeland wall in U.S. official mentality that raised and thickened borders, dashing Mr. Reagan’s hopes for freer flows of the three peoples. Harder economic times after the financial meltdown of 2008 have reinforced protectionist sentiment in Congress that too often draws from the patriotic narrative to counter the cooperative intentions of NAFTA.

Bilateral relations have suffered, especially between Canada and the United States.

President Barack Obama has declined to approve the Keystone XL pipeline that would transport heavy oil from Alberta’s oil sands to U.S. refineries. But Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has badly misplayed the politics of the issue, scolding environmental and other opponents of the project for their inability to see it as a “no-brainer,” chiding them he would “not take ‘no’ for an answer,” whatever that means. He further damaged White House relations by distancing Canada from U.S. efforts to encourage moderation of hard lines in the Middle East and to pursue nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Canada’s sniping makes no difference to the outcome of those issues, but it irritates Mr. Obama when Mr. Harper needs political capital. Mr. Harper implies he expects improvement from Mr. Obama’s successor, but he is likely to be done before the president. A recent Canadian EKOS poll shows the Conservative Party prime minister running behind Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, 39 percent to 26 percent. That’s not a blip, but a year-long trend that shows no sign it is likely to change significantly before an election slated for October 2015.

U.S.-Mexico relations are what they can be, given the semi-hysteria in the United States on immigration issues and border defense, even though the immediate crisis is actually sourced in Central America. The drug war is as complex as ever, but Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto is providing firm and energetic leadership on several fronts.

Unfortunately, his efforts to undo Canada’s recently imposed regime of visas for Mexicans were stiffed by Ottawa and Canada-Mexico relations are desultory. Mr. Harper and the Canadian bureaucracy sullenly resent Mexico’s greater political resonance in Washington, and prefer two-way dealings with the United States than the Three Amigos route.

But on another longer-term level, Ronald Reagan’s vision is getting traction from strategists, scholars and commentators with a wider geo-political lens, preoccupied with the rise in competitive economic and political regionalism. The notion that America is in decline is false, but there is objectively no question that the relative U.S. position is affected by the rise of the so-called BRIC countries. Moreover, Brazil, India, China and Russia are not World Trade Organization-supportive. Having to rely less on effective multilateralism, North Americans are going to need to rely more on themselves.

In the circumstances, shoring up a home base seems essential, especially in mercantile terms. NAFTA needs to be strengthened as the framework for our shared economic space. Several prominent voices in Canada, the United States and Mexico call for reinforcing common infrastructure such as the electricity grid, overhauling and simplifying trade and other economic rules to reflect current realities, and bonding together in a greater effort to forge common approaches to the very big policy issues, such as a grand bargain on energy and climate change/​carbon discharge. At a Berkeley conference a few years ago, a top administration official endorsed a call by ex-Undersecretary of State Tom Pickering and former Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan for the three countries to be “first movers” globally on climate change by knitting together an energy/​environmental package that could be something of a model internationally (and help restore multilateral cooperation more generally).

Realistic voices cautioned that political paralysis in Washington made U.S. leadership on such a package implausible. Hopes for Canada taking the lead have to acknowledge the paucity of effort by the current government to advance its environmental bona fides to mollify opponents of Keystone. But pressure is building, if not for a change in government, then for a more positive policy.

There is a big additional spatial dimension, projecting the NAFTA community across the Atlantic to meet the European Union. Everybody’s public “pivot” is to Asia, but in reality the more important forefront deal will be trans-Atlantic, enabling a stronger base from which to engage across the Pacific.

Dan Hamilton at Johns Hopkins University wrote a seminal book a decade ago with Joseph Quinlan on the transatlantic partnership between the United States and the EU that applies equally forcefully to the NAFTA-EU relationship that is the world’s strongest relationship, enhanced because of its common properties of democratic governance. The relationship is built as much on direct inter-investment, supply chains and affiliate sales as on export trade. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations between the United States and the EU will eventually bind these advantages. Canada’s landmark pending Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement treaty with the EU is something of a precursor. Mexico’s special relationship with the EU predates both. There is protectionist and political resistance in Congress and in Europe, but there always is.

That’s the economics and the geo-politics behind the Reagan idea today. Where’s the music?

My epiphany occurred in 2001 when as high commissioner in London, I joined my U.S. and Mexican ambassador colleagues in the idea of celebrating NAFTA’s tenth anniversary with a series of huge co-hosted receptions for the British political class at their annual party conferences.

At these events, the political Brits saw three countries they thought they had always understood in a completely new light. Canada appeared part of a much bigger North American enterprise with a demonstrably more “special” relationship to the United States than Britain’s; modern Mexico emerged as the “new” Mexico, with a self-confident and buoyant middle class of 30 million; and the United States came across as both strengthened and softened in the company of such family relatives.

We were the Three Amigos, not the Brits, nor the Europeans; we were “us,” the North Americans. Ronald Reagan had been on to something big, but acknowledged it “may take the next hundred years.” Actually, its time is now.

Jeremy Kinsman, who was the Canadian ambassador in Moscow, Rome, London and the European Union in Brussels, is the resident international scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California, Berkeley (kinsmanj@berkeley.edu).


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