Softwood lumber? Canadians again face the threat of tariffs when an eight-year truce expires in October. Country of origin labelling for beef? You bet. And our oil is so “dirty” in the minds of U.S. lobbyists that we can’t even get approval to finish a pipeline that would reduce the need to ship crude by rail.
And then there’s the third partner in the North American family – Mexico, which has the low wages and cheaper costs multinationals find so appealing. Longstanding Canadian staple industries, such as auto manufacturing, have largely already shipped south.
It’s been fashionable to react by turning our attention to distant shores – the intoxicating lure of new markets in Asia has diverted us away from the troubling relationship closer to home. If the United States doesn’t want our oil, we argue, then what’s wrong with China?
But before we run off to distant green pastures, two prominent U.S. thinkers argue that the three countries of North America would all enjoy a rising tide if they worked a little harder at giving each other a hand up.
Robert Zoellick, former chair of the World Bank, and David Petraeus, former CIA chief and commander of coalition forces in Iraq, were in Calgary recently to advocate for a renewed relationship between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. Their visit was powered by a report they co-authored for the Council on Foreign Relations, called North America: Time for a New Focus.
The concept is as simple as it is sensible. The world has changed since the countries began to open up trade 20 years ago, with NAFTA. Today, the deregulation of Mexico’s energy industry and recent U.S. developments have changed the continent’s energy output. Mexico’s growth in prosperity has given it a substantial middle class and its demographics are healthier than Europe’s, China’s, Japan’s and Russia’s.
If the three countries, with a combined population of nearly 500 million, deepen their integration and cooperation, the authors argue, they again have the potential to shape world affairs for generations to come.
Co-operation takes several forms. On energy, the authors call for improved infrastructure, including rapid approval of the contentious Keystone XL pipeline, and support for Mexico’s historic reforms. On economic competitiveness, they call for “free and unimpeded movement of goods and services” across North America’s borders – a strategy that includes cutting red tape. On security, the recommendation is for a unified security strategy that includes support for Mexico’s longstanding war on criminal networks. On community, it recommends federal immigration reform that, among other things, “offers a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants” to the U.S.
There is no question that the report is U.S.-centric in its perspective. It was written by Americans for Americans. Yet, there are compelling reasons to believe that Canada would benefit from the changes the authors are calling for. Embracing a cohesive continental strategy does not mean we abandon our interests in more distant countries. Rather, it simply acknowledges that our best allies should be the ones closest to home.
It’s also important to be realistic about how quickly change can come about. The reasoned arguments of two leaders may not be enough to overcome powerful protectionists with big pull in Washington. This document is more likely the beginning of an intensive effort to convince Americans to think beyond their own borders.
Throughout its history, in Pierre Trudeau’s famous words, Canada has been “sleeping with an elephant” next door. We are affected by every twitch and grunt. Where the U.S.’ fortunes go, so do our own. Even with our most determined efforts to insulate ourselves, we cannot rewrite geography.
Let’s hope Petraeus and Zoellick’s words can move a few mountains. If they can, the entire continent will be better off.
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.