Now that Barack Obama has announced that he will make his first international visit to Canada, Stephen Harper should use the opportunity to rejuvenate an idea that has been shrivelling on the vine this past decade: North American integration.
For decades, the conventional political wisdom in Canada has been that it is never wise for a prime minister to get too close to the Americans, even when the sitting president is popular (as Bill Clinton was, for instance). You can put that wisdom to bed. Not only is our current Prime Minister about as popular as a Leafs jersey in a sports bar on Crescent Street, but the alternatives on display leave most of us cold as well. Meanwhile, Obama is far better liked up here than Stephen Harper will ever be. Harper’s best hope, if he wants a majority government, might be to get as close as he can to Obama and pray that some of the man’s popularity rubs off on him.
It is not only about cashing in on the President’s charisma. It is also about taking advantage of the fact that after almost a full decade of American isolationism and unilateralism, there is a window of opportunity for us to re-engage the Americans on some key cross-border issues. Yes, continentalism is mounting a comeback. As former ambassador to the U.S. Derek Burney puts it in the new issue of Policy Options, Canada and the U.S. don’t really trade things anymore so much as make them together. But a fully integrated economy needs, at some level, integrated governance structures to enhance coordination, collective action, and mutual benefit.
There’s a Groundhog Day element here. By the late ’90s, the excitement—and in some quarters, hysteria—over continental integration had reached an appropriately millennial pitch. This was the age of NAFTA, and North America was quickly becoming a trading bloc to compete with the EU and ASEAN. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that continental integration would continue; the only question was how. Should the trade agreement be broadened to include free movement of labour, or even an outright customs union? Or should we focus on building a political layer on top of the economic agreement?
There was even a bit of borderless romanticism in the air. Anthony DePalma—a correspondent for the New York Times who had worked in both Canada and Mexico—captured the headiness of the times with Here: A Biography of the New American Continent. Released in the summer of 2001, the book was an attempt at exploring this emerging yet still indistinct continental identity. In its concluding pages, DePalma wrote: “Whenever I fill out an immigration form at an airport, I hesitate for a moment, just long enough to consider simply writing in the word ‘here’ for place of residence. I have come to feel like a Newlander, a citizen of North America, with all the opportunity for starting over that the concept entails.”
But in truth, enthusiasm on all sides for deeper continental integration moves in and out like the tides, and nothing much happened in the 15 years since NAFTA was signed, with Canada, Mexico, and the United States continuing to operate more or less as independently as ever. As Stephen Clarkson has recently argued, North America exists as “geography, not governance,” and continental free trade has done nothing to draw North Americans into a self-conscious political community like the one gradually emerging in Europe.
Still, there are two reasons to think the current North American moment will lead to more lasting change. The first is that Canadians have given up on the notion that progress requires that we bring Mexico along with us. NAFTA only arose after an anxious and insecure Canada elbowed its way into negotiations between the U.S. and Mexico. Now we are realizing the agreement is actually two bilateral deals, one between Canada and the U.S., the other between the U.S. and Mexico.
More importantly, the election of Obama offers the possibility of bringing the left on board. For decades, Canadian nationalists on the left have perceived every step toward integration as yet another sacrifice of our sovereignty to the Empire of Mammon; one of the biggest strategic errors they made, long ago, was ceding the ground of continental integration to pro-business lobby groups like Tom d’Aquino’s preposterously named Canadian Council of Chief Executives. By allowing the terms and conditions of continentalism to be dictated by the capitalists, the left found itself shunted into a reactionary and impotent localism.
But there is more at stake when it comes to building North America than the usual conservative obsessions of trade and security. We should consider climate change, energy and the environment, the economy—all of which were part of a pitch made by Harper to the new regime after Obama was elected. For an even more pressing example, think of how the Canadian government recently bent itself into a pretzel trying to put together a bailout for the auto industry. The bailout was motivated entirely by the need to ensure that American bailout money didn’t serve as a lever for drawing jobs and production out of Canada, and is evidence that integration is as necessary in a time of crisis as during boom years. These issues are mother’s milk for progressives, and the left has everything to gain by inserting itself into the process as quickly and energetically as possible.
But in the end, North America should not serve as a platform for socialists, any more than for capitalists. Continental integration is something that could benefit everyone equally, and with Obama in the White House we are in a unique position where we can actually make it happen.