BY ROBERT A. PASTOR
A thick layer of confusion surrounds the three leaders of North America – Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, U.S. President George W. Bush, and Mexican President Felipe Calderón – as they meet at Montebello, Quebec on August 20-21.
The three countries are exceptionally important to each other, and the annual summit is a recognition of that fact. And yet, by their silence or defensiveness, they have allowed the relationship to be defined by an extremist fringe that fears any cooperative initiative is a slippery slope toward the dissolution of sovereignty.
One could expect that Canadians and Mexicans – the weaker partners – would be wary of a North American embrace. There are groups in both countries that express such fears, but the most vociferous have emerged in the United States, and they have attacked the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), first enunciated by the three governments’ leaders in March 2005, as tantamount to treason.
IMMIGRATION AND JOB FEARS
The movement has emerged from the shards of a poisonous immigration debate and the fears of job loss due to globalization. Lou Dobbs of CNN and talk show radio hosts have spoken of SPP as a grand conspiracy for a “North American Union.” They view the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) report, Building a North American Community, as the roadmap to perdition, and the so-called NAFTA super-highway as its main corridor. (In the interest of full disclosure, I was Vice Chair of the CFR study group and am often cited as the “Architect of the North American Union” though I have never proposed it.)
Sadly, the Bush Administration and many Republicans have been intimidated by the criticism. Republican Senator John Cornyn sponsored a bill for a “North American Investment Fund” as the best long-term strategy to narrow the income gap with Mexico, and thus, in the longterm, stop illegal migration. But under assault from the right, Cornyn abandoned his proposal.
Even the U.S. government website on North America (spp.gov) displays an acute defensiveness, denying right-wing charges without bothering to make the case for North American cooperation. Under pressure from the labour unions, the Democratic Presidential candidates are no better, stuck in the NAFTA debate of a decade ago and apparently blind to the new North American agenda.
The Summit in Montebello should be very important. The agenda for North American cooperation is overflowing with issues that have been neglected or mishandled for a decade. This includes border and continental security; narrowing the income gap with Mexico; facilitating legitimate travel and immigration and stopping illegal traffic; eliminating rules-of-origin with a customs union; promoting education on North American issues; preventing cartel-like behaviour in the enlarged North American market while reducing the unnecessary discrepancy on regulations; developing a plan for North American infrastructure and transportation; and establishing better procedures and institutions to facilitate cooperation on environment and labour.
Instead of tackling this agenda, the three leaders have identified a few issues – Avian flu, emergency management, and a new regulatory framework – and practically the only ones invited to the meeting are the CEOs of some of the largest corporations.
While it is important for the bureaucracies of the three countries to work together, and while the CEOs are probably doing some good work, the SPP process is fundamentally flawed.
SUSPICIONS AND FEAR
As a quiet, if not secretive process involving CEOs, the SPP has provoked suspicions and deepseated fears not just from fringe groups, but also from mainstream labour, environmentalists and consumers.
By trying to keep the issues “below the radar screen” of public debate, they have left a message that the U.S. Congress has no role, which is both absurd and counter-productive, as illustrated by the recent passage by overwhelming majorities of Congressional amendments aimed to stop the SPP and prevent Mexican trucks from entering the United States.
The three leaders need to use the Summit to speak to their people – not just to their bureaucrats and CEOs – and explain why North America already represents the most formidable regional trading area in the world with a gross product larger than the 27-member European Union.
ALL WILL BENEFIT
They need to help the public understand why all will benefit from increased cooperation and integration. President Bush especially needs to explain to the American people that Canada and Mexico are our most important trading partners, sources of energy, and our closest friends. Ironically, despite the criticism, public opinion surveys taken by Ekos in 2003 show that a plurality of the public in all three countries believe free trade benefits all the countries; a strong majority believe in a common security perimeter and want the three governments to coordinate policy on the environment, transportation, and defence.
A majority in all three countries favored an economic union if they felt it would improve their standard of living and not harm their culture or the environment. In brief, the leaders could tap into this quieter majority if they chose to lead.
Whatever the three leaders actually do in Montebello, there will be protests that they are doing too much, but the real problem is that they are doing too little.
It is commendable to have an agreement on Avian Flu, but this is inadequate to the task of making North America more secure, prosperous, competitive and cooperative. What the leaders should do is articulate a vision of a North American Community and sketch a blueprint for accomplishing it.
Robert A. Pastor is Director of the Center for North American Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. and author of Toward a North American Community: Lessons from the Old World for the New. This column originally appeared in FOCALPoint, the publication of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL). Republished with permission from FOCAL.