Countries of the world: if there has to be some kind of new North America, what kind is it?

Mar 16th, 2005 | By | Category: Countries of the World

With one eye on the upcoming March 23 meeting of George W. Bush, Vicente Fox, and Paul Martin in Texas, a tri-national task force has just recommended an assortment of aggressive steps toward a bold new kind of North America.

If the press reports are to be believed, there is little real appetite for such enhanced integration of Canada, Mexico, and the United States in any of the three countries at the moment. Among other things, the vicissitudes of the war on terrorism, which are stimulating the vision in the first place, also seem to be making it impossible.

The tri-national task force urging all the boldness is co-chaired by former Canadian deputy prime minister John Manley, former Mexican finance minister Pedro Aspe, and former Massachusetts governor William Weld. Its key recommendations include:

  • annual summits of the three national leaders;
  • a unified plan for a common security perimeter;
  • a North American border pass with biometric identifiers so goods and people can flow more easily;
  • joint inspections of container traffic through North American ports;
  • a common external tariff or North American customs union; and
  • stimulating economic growth in Mexico’s poorer regions through a North American Investment Fund.

Alas, right now official Washington has assorted reasons to be annoyed with both Canada and Mexico, and vice-versa of course. From a Canadian point of view, there is the recent whatever-it-was over missile defense, along with the continuing open sores of mad cow, softwood lumber, and so forth. And then, as the Toronto Star urges, the Manley-Aspe-Weld report has set off the usual “alarm bells in Canada, where critics immediately branded it as a push to surrender Canadian control over its resources and an abdication of sovereign decision-making, while succumbing to America’s security agenda.”

And then Mexico never joined in on the war in Iraq either. And it has still more reasons of its own to be wary of too integrated a future in North America. (“Poor Mexico,” as the local adage holds: “so far from God, and so close to the United States.”)

And then one side of the United States itself has reacted to all the real enough challenges of the early 21st century by turning resolutely inward, in a rather outwardly aggressive way. In one respect this is no doubt just the side that re-elected George W. Bush in 2004, and should not be exaggerated. But these days all this is having a wider impact as well. Recently the palpably liberal and anti-Bush Princeton economist Paul Krugman has felt it necessary to acknowledge that more than enough of the democratic people in the USA today just do not “trust foreign examples” of public health-care systems, e.g., “like those of France or Canada” – even if they are “much cheaper to run than our market-based system” and “yield better results with respect to life expectancy and infant mortality.”

What the Manley-Aspe-Weld report finally comes down to, according to Robert Pastor, director of the Center for North American Studies at the American University in Washington, is whether the three leaders in Ottawa, Mexico City, and Washington today really “want to commit themselves to a North American idea.” The current consensus among those with their ears closest to the ground is probably not.

Sources in Ottawa in particular have apparently confirmed that the Martin government “continues to seek incremental improvements to the continental relationship rather than major changes such as a security perimeter or customs union.” No one in Ottawa is looking for a “big bang” here.

For a little while longer this may continue to be wise Canadian policy. A customs union, e.g., especially does not make much sense, so long as the Canada-US border remains closed to Canadian beef, and all that. (And may not be all that good or even necessary an idea, period.)

But time is marching on, inside and outside North America. What John Manley seems to be trying to tell us in Canada is that not embracing some kind of fresh and forward-looking vision of “a North American idea,” not too much further down the road, could prove to be the very worst thing for a strong and independent Canadian future.

A case in point is another recent report, released just this past February 25, 2005, and bearing the somewhat unfortunate title “North American Natural Gas Vision.” This is the work of the “North American Energy Working Group (NAEWG), a group of senior energy officials from Canada, Mexico and the United States.” It “includes information on the natural gas market in the North American region, including forecasts through the year 2012.” And it was released by U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, in conjunction with “Minister of Natural Resources Canada R. John Efford and Mexico’s Energy Secretary Fernando Elizondo.”

There are other vaguely related documents and organizations floating around the continental atmosphere nowadays. (Consider, e.g., the North American Industry Classification System, “developed jointly by the U.S., Canada, and Mexico to provide new comparability in statistics about business activity across North America.” Or the North American Electric Reliability Council, or the North American Association for Environmental Education.)

It does not take too much study to suspect that the price of not coming up with a jointly devised over-arching vision for the North American future could be a much more haphazardly evolving and largely accidental North American idea. And this could be altogether dominated by Washington – in the narrowest interests of those who are pouring the most into a new Republican party, that may wind up dominating US politics for a while yet.

(Intriguingly enough as well, the March 15 online editions of the Globe and Mail and the Star in Toronto ran somewhat worried articles on the Manley-Aspe-Weld report, and its plea for “borders that would ultimately diminish in importance, much as they have in the countries of the European Union.” But there were no similar items in, e.g., the Edmonton Journal, or the Vancouver Sun. The closest the Journal came was a piece on recent guilt pangs felt by one of the US pilots responsible for the friendly fire deaths of four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, way back when. In Vancouver the space was filled by a report on remarks about the need to continue beefing up Canada’s military capacity, by outgoing US ambassador Paul Cellucci.)

Some kind of new North America is in any case taking shape down on the ground – among Canada, Mexico, the United States, and even the adjacent Caribbean Sea. If the forces of progress can’t come up with a North American idea that accommodates what is happening anyway, and helps push it in benign directions that work for both Canada and Mexico, as well as the United States, the forces of reaction will likely enough somehow come up with something much worse. And that at least is worth thinking a little about too, when the 2005 assortment of the three amigos gets together in Texas, on March 23.

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