Should Ottawa quit a continental strategy and go back to oneon-one with the U.S.?
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
Teamster president James Hoffa waved around a York peppermint pattie when he campaigned for Barack Obama in Pennsylvania earlier this month, and described the North American Free Trade Agreement in words unfit to print. He stood in front of a Reading factory whose workers are losing their jobs because production of the almost 70-year-old confection is moving to Mexico.
Indeed, when the Democratic presidential candidates have fulminated about pulling out of NAFTA to secure better labour and environmental standards, it’s presumably been Mexico, not Canada, whose standards they’ve had in mind. Adding fuel to the fire has been anxiety over undocumented immigrants, also referred to as “illegal aliens,” or even the “alien invaders,” as Americans of various political stripes are demanding a strengthening of their borders—and it’s not the Canadian
border that is driving the debate. But while Canada may be the biggest trading partner of 36 American states, and is rarely the target of the anti-North American sentiment that is growing on both sides of the U.S. political aisle, it is suffering the collateral damage.
Now, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper prepares to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderón in New Orleans on April 21-22, there is a growing sentiment in Ottawa that the “three amigos” act may have run its course. One-on-one bilateral summits between presidents and prime ministers were replaced in 2005 with meetings of the three leaders, under a broader discussion process known as the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP). But, “based on the results so far, I don’t think the trilateral approach, despite all the fanfare, has done much to advance the bilateral agenda,” says Derek Burney, a former Canadian ambassador to Washington who later headed Harper’s transition from opposition to government. “We are inevitably dragged into U.S.-Mexico issues as long as we pursue the trilateral approach. Whether immigration or drugs, their issues are quite different from our issues.”
In response, Burney is leading an effort to
develop a fresh “blueprint” for Canada-U.S. relations, for delivery to the Prime Minister in time for the election of the next U.S. president. Co-chaired by Fen Hampson, director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, the project is not an attack on trilateralism but will focus scholars, former diplomats and business leaders on bilateral issues ranging from the border and defence to climate change and the Arctic. Burney advocates a return to regular bilateral leaders’ meetings and possibly the creation of new bilateral institutions, such as one to deal with the border. “The current [Canadian] government would probably welcome a return to more of a bilateral focus,” says Burney.
The stark differences between the issues were on display when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier and Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa at the State Department earlier this month for preparatory meetings for the New Orleans meeting. At the routine press conference, Bernier was asked about cases of Canadians in Mexican and American custody, but mostly sat quietly while Rice and Espinosa fielded questions from the Mexican press on a proposed U.S. three-year $1.4-billion program, the Merida
Initiative, aimed at building up the Mexican military’s ability to fight drug cartels and violence along the border using new technology, as well as helicopters and surveillance aircraft. It has been criticized as both a wasteful subsidy to Mexico and a recipe for a lethal crackdown on human rights. Whatever the case, it demonstrates that when violence on the southern border reaches a scale that requires military intervention, it can quickly eclipse genteel discussions of high-tech drivers’ licences in the north.
In fact, the American political context has been completely transformed since the early days of the Bush administration, when Ottawa envied the former Texas governor’s close bond with his friend, then-Mexican president Vicente Fox. Mexico’s image has suffered since. After the Republican presidential contest drew several outspoken hard-liners on immigration, Calderón told a Mexico City radio station that “the only theme in the electoral campaign is to compete to see who can be the most swaggering, macho and antiMexican.” He accused the American people of a lack of understanding and “hostility” toward his country. Meanwhile, the Democratic presidential candidates also face pres-
sure to talk about tightening both borders—so as not to appear to be singling out Mexico and offending their Hispanic voters. As long as the discussion remains about the future of “North America,” Canada finds itself having to point out at each turn how it is different. In addition, 9/11 has made security the overriding border concern in the U.S.
“If I’ve seen one sea change since coming back to Ottawa it’s the shift from trilateralism to bilateralism among the business com-
munity and those who follow the Canada-U.S. relationship,” says Colin Robertson, who from 2004 to 2006 led the Canadian Embassy’s advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill, and is now directing the bilateral research initiative at Carleton. “They have come to it through hard experience—partly because we see the American approach to the border has been to take the approach to the south and apply it to the north. When Americans talk trade and migration they are talking Mexico, and we become collateral damage.”
The SPP process was supposed to be flexible enough to allow for different progress among the countries. Supporters call it “three can talk and two can walk.” But critics don’t buy it. “We need to say goodbye to the sombreros,” argues Michael Hart, a professor of trade policy in the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, and a former Canadian trade official. “I would scrap it tomorrow and replace it with a bilateral agenda where Canada and the U.S. have common interests and where there is room for progress. The government has not been working harder to say we are not Mexico. That is what we should be doing.” Supporters of the trilateral approach say it has political and economic benefits for Canada. “Many of us believe in the importance of a North American community,” says former Liberal deputy prime minister Anne McLellan. “We want to see NAFTA as a stepping stone toward greater efficiency and integration within North America so we are able to level this trading block and compete with the rest of the world.” She argues that American decision-makers clearly understand that the northern border and the southern border are different, and are aware that jobs are being lost to outside countries such as India and China. “Mexico is losing jobs to China, for goodness sake,” she says.
Still others argue that Canada stands a better chance of drawing attention to its issues in a three-way process. “From Ottawa’s point of view, I can see the rationale for wanting to move to bilateral,” says Greg Anderson, a professor at the University of Alberta and coauthor of a study of the SPP. “But I’m not sure Ottawa is going to get a lot of traction trying to push a bilateral agenda.” Chris Sands, a Canada specialist at Washington’s Center for Strategic & International Studies, agrees. He recalls struggling to draw modest audiences from the Washington policy community to discussions of Canada-U.S. issues, while his colleagues who handled Mexican issues would have “hundreds in the room—and some hanging off the walls.” Maybe so. But given the tone of the attention Mexico gets these days, crowds are something Canada may prefer to live without. M
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