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Who Killed North America?

Christopher Sands

Duncan Wood recently wrote a provocative piece for the Simon Chair blog that took note of the February 4, 2011 Washington Declarations on U.S.-Canadian border security and regulatory cooperation and observed that they were just the latest evidence that the United States’ approach to North America had shifted to dual-bilateralism.

Wood points to five reasons related to conditions in Mexico that tripartite negotiations were abandoned in favor of parallel bilateral processes between the United States and its neighbors: Mexico’s lesser stage of economic development; tensions between the United States and Mexico over migration; the Mexican military’s reticence for close cooperation with its U.S. counterpart; the worsening security situation in Mexico; and the problems of securing Mexico’s southern border. Wood also identifies a sixth reason: Canadian resistance to Mexican participation.

In a March 3 story in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, U.S. diplomatic communications revealed by Wikileaks were reported that indicated that U.S. officials were under pressure to drop Mexico from trilateral talks because Canadian officials felt Mexico (and its problems) received too much attention and slowed progress. This linked the first five explanations in Wood’s analysis with the sixth, and made clear that U.S. policymakers faced resistance to their efforts to consolidate similar discussions on border and regulations with its neighbors from the neighbors themselves.

Following the negotiation of the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement, the United States sought a second bilateral free trade negotiation with Mexico. The Canadian government was eager to join the talks (and lobbied the Mexican government for help to persuade the George H.W. Bush administration) and so the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) established a three-country North American economic integration process. NAFTA Working Groups were trilateral, as was the NAFTA Commission—annual meetings of the trade ministers of each of the three countries.

Canada argued then that unless North American talks were trilateral, Canada and Mexico would become “spokes” to the U.S. “hub” or center of the wheel, and the continental economy would revolve as the United States turned.

In November 2002, I wrote an essay for CSIS proposing that the three countries consider adopting the paradigm that helped Europe manage different levels of development among European Community members. Just as Brussels had developed a “Europe at Two Speeds” approach, I recommended that at a time when NAFTA-initiated talks on harmonizing regulatory standards and frustrations over post-2001 border security, the United States, Canada and Mexico could pursue a “North America at Two Speeds” to accommodate differences between Canada and Mexico.

The George W. Bush administration opted instead to double-down on trilateralism, establishing the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP) in 2005. My feelings weren’t hurt that Bush ignored my suggestion, and together with Greg Anderson (an adjunct fellow at CSIS and a professor at the University of Alberta) I praised the SPP with its 20 trilateral working groups made up of officials, a ministerial oversight group that met twice a year and an annual summit that brought together the Canadian prime minister and the U.S. and Mexican presidents.

The SPP prompted a populist backlash in all three countries based on the fear that trilateral cooperation posed a threat to national sovereignty, and that the non-transparent SPP was not sufficiently accountable to democratic institutions. President Obama, Prime Minister Harper, and President Calderon disbanded the SPP at their annual summit in Guadalajara in 2009. In its place, they adopted a limited agenda which they delegated to appropriate cabinet officials for follow-up action (which they stressed could be bilateral or trilateral as appropriate for the issue). In addition, the leaders pledged to meet again the following year when Canada would host the summit.

2010 came and went and Canada did not host a summit. The leaders met bilaterally, and all three participated in G-8 plus 5 and G-20 summits, as well as in the UN climate change conference in Cancún. But the North American talks were never reviewed. When Obama and Harper launched bilateral alternative talks on border and regulatory cooperation on February 4, the trilateral vision of North America seemed truly dead.

Duncan Wood teaches in Mexico and perhaps for this reason sees the principal causes for the collapse of a trilateral vision for North America in Mexico. He is not wrong, but I think he lets the United States and Canada off too lightly.

In a recent paper for Hudson, I argue that Canada sought to “rebilateralize” the relationship with the United States as the Canada-Mexico relationship soured, and the Obama administration gave in to Canada’s preference when confronted with the collapse of its tripartite SPP-alternative. I also call for the United States to begin parallel, bilateral processes with Mexico to address border and regulatory cooperation. It turns out these parallel processes are already in place, and were reconfirmed during the visit of President Calderon to the White House on March 3.

Like the Clean Energy Dialogues—the U.S. has one with Canada and one with Mexico and failed to persuade Canada and Mexico to link the two at Guadalajara summit—and the Smart Border Accords—the United States signed one with Canada and one with Mexico after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks—North American regulatory cooperation and security issues have proven impossible for the United States to consolidate because Canada or Mexico resisted. Whether Duncan is correct that this is largely Mexico’s fault, or I am right that Canada is principally to blame, the result is the same.

For the United States, dual-bilateralism appears favorable. “North America at Two Speeds” will operate with the U.S. “hub” setting the pace and the Canadian and Mexican “spokes” increasingly accepting the Americanization of standards and practices with little pressure on the United States to make concessions.

And yet, the unanswered question is whether in a globalized economy Americanization of the North American region accomplished through parallel bilateral negotiations will merit the serious attention of U.S. officials and the support of U.S. businesses and civil society groups. Why not discuss standards and security with the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) countries, or the G-20 members?

Given the investments of political capital, time and energy required to liberalize domestic regulatory and security measures, U.S. interests would be best advanced through engagement with coalitions of the willing. And the broader the coalition the better as the Obama administration seeks to revive the sagging U.S. economy through export growth and innovation.

But “willing” is the operative condition. The United States was, and remains, willing to pursue an inclusive regional strategy for the deepening of North American economic integration. It is the failure of will of its neighbors and partners—to work with each other, not the United States—that has killed the tripartite vision of North America, for now at least.

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