The need for a strong, more unified North America
North America was trending in the midterm elections, although you may have missed it. Think about the top campaign issues in races across the country: economic recovery and job creation, inflation, the price of gasoline, immigration, border security, increasing crime and suffering in communities devastated by fentanyl and other drugs. With the exceptions of abortion and election integrity, virtually every issue that motivated voters also impacts — and is impacted by — North America.
In short, relations with Mexico and Canada touch the daily lives of more Americans than do ties with any other countries in the world.
And with President Biden having recently returned from Asia and his first presidential face-to-face meeting with China’s Xi Jinping, we are reminded that a more unified North America is required to meet the China challenge, economically and strategically. A disunited North America is catnip for global authoritarians. A stronger, more collaborative North American strategy can strengthen the United States’s ability to compete with China and others as the global scene transforms.
Now, as President Biden prepares for the next North American Leaders Summit (NALS) with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts, expected in early January, it’s time to take a fresh look at North America. How can we build a more strategic vision of what the continent must become as a globalized world becomes more dependent on dynamic regional cooperation, evident in the drive to nearshore supply chains? And then, a key to success will be institutionalizing this vision at the most senior levels of the U.S. government.
It’s helpful to remind ourselves of the importance of the continent to the United States. We share with Canada the longest undefended border in the world, and a 2,000 mile border with Mexico. With both, we need to cooperate on border security, migration, drug trafficking, terrorism, and the safe, rapid transit of goods and people. U.S.-Canadian cooperation is smoother, but U.S.-Mexican cooperation is equally vital. Just consider the record number of “encounters” with migrants at the Southwest border and the jump in seizures of deadly fentanyl in the past year.
Canada and México are our top trading partners. Both neighbors are vying for the top spot, and both outpace U.S. trade with China. Because of production networks originally established under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the United States builds more things together with our neighbors, by far, than with any other countries in the world. Similarly, Canada is the United States’s largest supplier of petroleum, followed by Mexico.
The three countries launched a renewed trade agreement, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) in 2020, and trade with Mexico and Canada has been growing by double digits since. The total trade crossing both the U.S.-Canada and U.S.-Mexico borders is over $2.5 million — every minute of the day.
On security, Canada is a strategic partner, a member of NATO, NORAD and the G7, and one of the “Five Eyes” group of nations with the highest level of confidence in intelligence gathering and sharing. Canada routinely contributes to global peacekeeping efforts and is being courted by Washington to lead international action to restore order and security in Haiti.
Although the U.S. relationship with Mexico is markedly different, nonetheless it is equally important. The border requires constant bilateral management to increase the flow of legitimate goods and services while preventing illicit activities, including drugs and people headed north or arms and profits from illegal drug sales headed to Mexico. Drug overdoses in the United States hit a gruesome milestone of over 100,000 in the past year, fueled by fentanyl smuggled from Mexico. Without Mexico’s cooperation, it will be virtually impossible to manage the border well and to deal with the challenges to the security and well-being of both countries. Both governments have agreed they need to do better.
As well, Mexico long has been a primary sender of migrants to the United States, with an estimated 10.7 million Mexican-born individuals living in the United States. This is a critically important, if often under-appreciated, component of a growing U.S. economy with historically low unemployment. And with the unprecedented surge of migrants arriving from Central America and other countries, Mexico’s cooperation is more valuable than ever.
The United States faces one big policy challenge. U.S. physical and economic security depends directly on robust relations with its immediate neighbors. Yet North American issues — including borders and immigration, public health, energy security, the environment and others — are generally viewed through a domestic political lens. Issues too often are considered in isolation, rather than with the realization that they are both domestic and international at the same time. The disconnect is harmful to U.S. interests.
The harm becomes clearer if we consider shifting geopolitics, where the pandemic, authoritarian advances, and active conflicts seem to be moving us toward a world where regional synergies and trusted partnerships will determine much more about who can compete effectively and build sustainable prosperity.
President Biden, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador recognized the value of more collaboration when they approved an ambitious work agenda at their first NALS last November. We must look for how much progress is evident when they meet again in Mexico.
But the situation also demands that the United States, Canada and Mexico find ways to further institutionalize the North American agenda with more regular and senior level collaboration among the three governments.
For the United States, this means designating more senior political attention at the White House to ensure that the domestic and international issues impacted by North America are better coordinated. The goal would be to manage domestic political priorities with the need to promote a firmer foundation for U.S. well-being and security going forward. This could mean asking the vice president to coordinate North America policy, supported by a permanent directorate straddling the National Security and Economic Councils, for example. Other arrangements could be considered as well.
Without intentional, senior-level institutionalization at the highest political levels, however, “North America” will continue to fall victim to the disconnect between domestic and foreign policies that undermines broad U.S. interests.
Governments come and go, and issues rise and fall, but geography is forever. The United States is richly blessed to occupy geography that favors it, with neighbors who can and do contribute to our success, and we to theirs. It is long past time to take full advantage of this opportunity.
Eric Farnsworth heads the Washington office of the Council of the Americas. He participated in NAFTA negotiations at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and served in the White House and State Department. Follow him on Twitter @ericfarns.
Earl Anthony Wayne is a Distinguished Diplomat at American University’s School of International Service, advisory board co-chair of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, and a retired U.S. career ambassador. Follow him on Twitter @EAnthonyWayne.
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