A Way Forward For North American Integration

Canada, the U.S., and Mexico need to focus on immediate, common challenges, not high-level negotiations, argue Jennifer Jeffs and Stephen Blank.
By: , /
February 19, 2014
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Tom d’Aquino’s article on a Pact for North America calls for “a big and ambitious agenda” that would lead to the transformation of North America and create the basis for closer collaboration. Instead, we should begin with a vision of three sovereign nations confronting common, shared and increasingly urgent problems.

This week’s leaders’ summit offers a prime occasion to present ideas for new forms of cooperation. While the United States and Canada have been applauding the remarkable political maneuvering that has pushed forward the “pacto por Mexico” in its southern-most NAFTA partner, efforts to negotiate a grand new bi- or tripartite “Pact” for North America have failed so far and, sadly, seem unlikely to succeed anytime soon. The political will necessary for a visionary continental accord has been suppressed by politically toxic squabbles about eroding sovereignties. To move forward, the North American region must become a vehicle for collaboration rather than its goal.

Our three sovereign nations share many common, increasingly urgent challenges. Problems need solutions, but they can also provide opportunities. These shared issues – good and bad – provide the basis for the trilateral relationship to move forward to find solutions together.

Energy, for example, is clearly an issue that must be viewed in continental terms. And while we all benefit from North America’s integrated oil, gas, and electricity systems, our energy-rich environment means that we should work together to further optimize energy availability, cost, and sustainability for both the current and next generations. Similarly, continental environmental threats do not represent three separate national problems as pollution, environmental degradation, and environmental catastrophe heed no borders.

Competitive advantage considerations must push us to shape continental supply chains to prepare for the future. Reducing transaction costs in the North American market requires efficient, safe, and sustainable transport including logistics systems, border crossings, and a robust energy infrastructure. We cannot remain competitive throughout the 21st century without a continental infrastructure plan for improved roads, rails, and ports. Meanwhile, we will not remain competitive without a population equipped with appropriate skills, training, and education for the needs of tomorrow. Indeed, various employment opportunities and fields of research exist today that were previously unthinkable.

While a pact for North America would be hard-pressed to present solid trilateral approaches to any of these real concerns, we can seize opportunities to create parallel initiatives on common policy challenges. Energy, climate change, production and distribution systems, infrastructure, education and skills, and healthcare are among the most obvious.

With or without a pact, North America needs institutional innovation. A North American Energy Council; an expanded and more independent North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation; a North American Forum on Higher Education, Innovation and Research; and research groups mandated to examine transportation infrastructure and demographic change in North America would provide essential first steps to addressing the challenges outlined above.

Not every problem has a North American solution. But continental ideas and approaches may hold the most logical responses to pressing issues. It should be natural – not unusual – to think of continental collaboration as a tool to deal with common concerns. North American solutions should be a natural component of our policy arsenal in Ottawa as well as in Washington and Mexico City.

Unfortunately, finding collaborative solutions for North America’s pressing issues is less glamorous than launching new, high-level negotiations for a NAFTA II. It is a messier, more decentralized approach. But it can work.

Moreover, large constituencies support North American integration. These include businesses – large and small – running continental production, supply, and marketing operations; cities where local jobs depend upon efficient North American transportation and logistics networks; and communities living on the borders. Many local governments, businesses, and civil society groups are aware of their roles integrating communities across Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

In the coming years, let us mobilize these disconnected groups into coherent communities to build continental collaboration; stimulate continual conversations; establish ongoing ties between research and teaching institutions; and mobilize constituencies working on energy, climate change, supply chains, education, infrastructure, and demographics rather than hardening our political or economic differences.

We must climb beyond the repetitive, ad hoc approach that has characterized discussions of North America over the past three decades. And we must also engage with those who oppose further integration to make it clear to them that the necessities outweigh the risks. Issues should not be managed under legislative and media radars. We must stop being afraid of public debate on the future of North America. If we act like conspirators, we will certainly be accused of conspiracy.

As many have been proclaiming for years, foundations have been laid for a new North American Pact. These foundations, however, fail to take into account a desire to propagate a less centralized approach to continental decision-making. Despite being messier, we believe that such an approach, if carried out appropriately, just might work.

A version of this piece originally appeared in the Financial Post on February 19, 2014.