Is North American policy "foreign" policy?

Overseas ‘hotspots’ get all the attention in U.S. foreign policy debates, but where does Canada fall?
By: /
November 4, 2014

The U.S. Presidency is not up for grabs on Tuesday, but Republicans are running hard against President Obama in this week’s midterm election. And like Obamacare and immigration, criticism of Obama’s conduct of American foreign policy is viewed as a major source of Republican votes.

The critique of Obama’s foreign policy argument will be echoed in Toronto on Wednesday in the latest edition of the high-profile Munk Debates series. Four well known U.S. specialists on foreign relations – Robert Kagan, Bret Stephens, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Fareed Zakaria – will square off on the topic, “Be it resolved Obama’s foreign policy is emboldening our enemies and making the world a more dangerous place.”

In the midst of a discussion that will focus mainly on the Middle East, China, Ukraine and Russia, it is worth spending a moment thinking about how Obama’s foreign policy affects its North American partners.

What is interesting and somewhat odd is that relations with Canada and Mexico are often considered ‘foreign’ relations. But should they?

Canada and the U.S. share interests in many global matters, and an elaborate network of Ottawa-Washington consultation and collaboration has long existed on many critical foreign policy issues. From the formation of NATO to actual combat in Kosovo, in Iraq and Afghanistan and today, in the struggle against ISIL, Canadians have played major roles along side of Americans. Information and intelligence sharing is well institutionalized across the U.S.-Canada.

The mechanisms and outcomes of these collaborations have been criticized even among those who have supported them, but it is this very elaborate structure of consultation and cooperation that distinguishes that the Canada-U.S. partnership from U.S.-Mexico relations on international affairs. As a non-permanent member of the U.S. Security Council in 2009-2010, Mexico was more involved in global issues – particularly in the Middle East and Iran – than ever before, but Mexico’s rising attention to international affairs has largely followed its economic interests. Mexico City has never sought to carve out an international presence anything similar to how Ottawa has view its own role.

Canadians complain about the lack or tardiness of consultation, while Americans say Canada promises more than it delivers. Nonetheless, the pattern of U.S.-Canada (and U.S.-Mexico) collaboration on foreign affairs has not differed greatly under Obama from previous presidents.

But something is missing. Our three national economies are deeply integrated – much of our production and energy systems, our financial markets and large segments of our infrastructure are continental in scope. We are profoundly interconnected and interdependent. The Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA were essentially the recognition of this reality – efforts to remove barriers to a process of deepening integration that was already well advanced. Moreover, many of the most serious issues all three countries face – the impact of climate change, of changes in energy structure, in demographics, of new competitive pressures – are not national but continental.

What is odd is that given all of this is we still view these intercontinental relations as ‘foreign’ relations. Despite the reality of dense networks among government officials at the federal, state-provincial and local levels, our senior diplomats still speak as representatives of fully sovereign nations. There is no one in Ottawa, Washington or Mexico City with a mandate to manage complex, ongoing relations with the North American partners.

This is hardly President Obama’s fault. But, fault or not, it means that he is charged with the “failure,” for example, of the Keystone pipeline—under a foreign policy framing. Clearly, viewing the Keystone pipeline as a U.S.-Canada issue makes little sense when discussions on the pipeline should be seen as one element of a wider, ongoing conversation on North America’s energy options and future.

More than trading partners

Classic diplomatic discourse doesn’t seem the right way to go here.

Dealings among the NAFTA partners also frequently take the form of trade negotiations. (Indeed, most leaders see North America as a trade bloc.) The structure of these negotiations is typically “zero-sum” which means that one side gains and the other loses. Negotiators stack up these gains and losses to arrive at some solution that is reasonably satisfactory to each side.

But this is an awkward way to deal with complex, ongoing issues that demand policy innovation and continuing management.

In fact, the rising density of cross border transactions and post 9/11 security concerns have forced Washington and Ottawa and Washington and Mexico City to create new vehicles for regulatory and security collaboration. The Canada-U.S. Regulatory Cooperation Council has done well, picking up pieces and repairing cracks that have existed since 1994 but the basic model is still trade negotiations.

This doesn’t work well either. Recall when all three NAFTA nations each signed a free trade agreement with Chile. What did this mean? Was Chile now a part of NAFTA? We have moved no further toward creating a vision of North American interests in trade. How much sense would it make to have three separate free trade agreements with the EU? How much more confusion – thickening! – would that create at our internal borders? Mexico, Canada the U.S. are all taking part in the TPP negotiations. Should we not have at least a baseline sense of North American interests here?

As we grind along in the RCC to reduce regulatory barriers that inhibit greater economic efficiency, are we now creating new internal barriers by taking part independently in these trade negotiations, and viewing them as arenas for competition among the North American nations?

Similarly, at what point do we understand that climate change doesn’t respect borders, and that we should create a continuing, institutionalized, continental structure for responding to climate change? What kind of space can be found between the excessive intimacy of a Brussels-type organization and sovereign arms-length dealings?

Again, this is not President Obama’s fault. But nothing has changed during his administration.

Our continuing inability to see relations among us as something different than “foreign” remains a major obstacle to building a more efficient, economical and sustainable North America.