When Will the Fiesta Start? Mexico-Canada Relations in a New North America
The following is a contribution in the blog series on the exceptional contribution of Stephen Clarkson to Canada. Stephen Clarkson died in 2016. The substantial work he undertook on Canada’s relationship to Mexico is particularly relevant today as NAFTA negotiations occur.
Laura Macdonald is a Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Institute of Political Economy at Carleton University. Her research is focused on the role of non-governmental organizations in development, global civil society, citizenship struggles in Latin America, Canadian development assistance and the political impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Among her publications are the following books: The Politics of Violence in Latin America and the Caribbean (forthcoming); North American in Question: Regional Integration in an Era of Economic Turbulence (2012) Contentious Politics in North America, Palgrave Macmillan (2009); Post-Neoliberalism in the Americas: Beyond the Washington Consensus? (2009); and Women, Democracy, and Globalization in North America: A Comparative Study (2006)
When Will the Fiesta Start? Mexico-Canada Relations
in a New North America
North America and The Solidarity Of The Weak
Stephen Clarkson’s career began as a student of Soviet politics and his dissertation concerned. The politics of his own country, Canada, and he was part of the group of left nationalists who founded the “new Canadian political economy,” he retained a strong interest in the world and moved beyond the sometimes parochial concerns of that approach and its sometimes single-minded focus on Canada’s relationship with the superpower to the south, the United States. The signing of NAFTA in 1994, which brought Mexico into a close relationship with both Canada and the United States, led to an important shift in his focus toward comparative regionalism. He also developed a deep appreciation and knowledge of Mexico and contributed important insights to Canada’s relationship with that other “periphery” as he termed both countries.
While always clear-eyed and somewhat skeptical about the possibilities for cooperation between Canada and Mexico, he remained hopeful about the possibility to “diffuse American preponderance through a solidarity of the weak.” (Clarkson 2004, n.p., my emphasis). In the current conjuncture, this possibility remains more important than ever. While early phases of the Trump presidency showed Canada and Mexico somewhat predictably retreating into their own corners to deal with his disruptive influence, more recently the two countries seem to be moving toward a closer alliance. What can Stephen’s thinking tell us about the possibilities of cooperation between the two weaker partners in the NAFTA alliance in the face of a Trump presidency, and can they collectively achieve some shared objectives in the face of the Trump onslaught?
In this paper I will first examine Clarkson’s thinking about the nature of the Canada-Mexico relationship within the broader North American region, how it changed over time, and then will examine what his thinking tells us about the possibilities and perils of partnership between the two peripheries and the future of North America. For all the talk we’ve had of “three amigos,” the disparities and asymmetries of the relationship have seriously undermined regional cooperation even before the arrival of Trump.
The Disproportionate Power of the Hegemon in the North American Region
Clarkson began his study of the Canada-US relationship as a young academic caught up in the public outrage against the war in Vietnam. This deep moral commitment led to the publication of An Independent Foreign Policy for Canada (1968). In it, along with fellow contributors to the volume, he argued passionately for an independent voice for Canada, advocating not independence for its own sake or an idealized notion of the Canadian nation, but in order to spur the country to promote a more egalitarian and just social order both abroad and at home. He did not view the Canadian past in a rosy, idealized fashion, referring approvingly to David Wolfe’s description of the Canadian case as “bastard Keynesianism,” and to Jane Jenson’s reference to “permeable Fordism,” “whose bargain between business and labour leaders excluded other social forces” (Clarkson 2001: 503).
He also objected to the doom and gloom he perceived among some intellectual approaches to understanding the shift from a world of nation-states to the “post-sovereign” or “post-Fordist” order. He retained an optimism of the will. I argue, however, that he did remain a nationalist in that his ontological understanding of the global system rested upon the nation state as a still fundamental actor, even if its powers might be constrained by other actors, including supranational forms of governance like the World Trade Organization, and multinational corporations (see Clarkson 2001). And this position led him to reject the idea that NAFTA represented a “world region” in the sense that Europe was (a position that would also disqualify almost every other region from that terminology).
Clarkson’s approach also emerged out of the practice of teaching. In a 1972 article, he lamented the lack of social science courses on the Canada-U.S. relationship, caused by the lack of serious literature, of appropriate conceptual tools, and the “continentalism” of the Canadian scholarly community (referring here to the role of Europe and then the United States as the site of “professional finishing schools”). He devoted much of his career to the task of developing a body of analysis and adequate conceptual and theoretical tools to understanding that relationship, not just for analytical purposes but to help develop a Canadian academic community as a “motor of national development” (1972: 271).
Once the Canada-U.S. FTA was followed by the NAFTA, which included Mexico, his intellectual approach shifted and it can be argued that unlike most students of the agreement, he approached the three partners as deserving equal attention. With Maria Banda, he recognized that despite the fact that both “peripheries” faced a common challenge in their relationship to the partner in NAFTA, the United States, each continued to view their own problems separately “since the evolution of scholarship on Canada’s and Mexico’s place in the North American continent had long proceeded in its own two vacuums” (2004, n.p.). Because of the differences in the two countries’ historical and cultural origins, their commonalities did not become clear until the signing of NAFTA. Even then few analysts followed his path in systematically examining these commonalities as well as differences. These commonalities rested on the nature of their relationship with their common neighbour. Both countries had struggled with their relationship with the continental hegemon and world superpower for many years, but had struggled alone, failing to overcome those historical, linguistic, economic and cultural differences.
Neoliberals (who he insisted on referring to as neoconservatives) view FTAs as based on an equal playing field, in which all parties will benefit even if inevitably there will be some individual winners and losers. In contrast to neoliberal approaches, Clarkson emphasized the asymmetries and imbalances that prevailed in NAFTA. Based on his reading of history, and contra Trump, Clarkson argued (with Mildenberger) that the United States benefited enormously from its relationship with its weaker partners in terms of its wealth, domestic security, and international influence (2011: 247). In Uncle Sam and Us, he argues that “NAFTA was carefully designed to prevent any form of continental governance. …CUFTA and NAFTA do indeed represent a sea change for the two peripheral members of North America. Far from producing a system of continental governance in which Mexico and Canada would have had some influence their texts have reconstituted American hegemony in the form of an economic rule book that establishes an unevenly liberalized market and a set of supraconstitutional constraints on the policy-making options of both Canada and Mexico” (2002, 41-42).
Asymmetry The Fundamental Imbalance
In stark contrast to the uninformed rhetoric of Trump and his populist allies, Clarkson shows clearly that NAFTA was not a “a catastrophic trade deal for the United States” but rather a highly asymmetrical arrangement whose design the hegemon, the U.S., was able to dominate, and which drew much more benefit than its two weaker partners, Canada and Mexico. Nevertheless, his methodological nationalism may lead him to underestimate the harmful impact of the agreement on workers and marginalized groups in the United States – not that he did not recognize this impact, but it was not his main area of interest.
In a prescient discussion of the situation we soon might face, he noted that the asymmetry of the relationship comes out perhaps most clearly in the prospect of abrogation: “De facto asymmetry characterizes NAFTA’s formally symmetrical clause defining how any ‘party’ can abrogate the agreement: it needs only to give its partners six months notice of its intention. The threat of abrogation has a very different weight in the hands of Washington than in those of Ottawa or Mexico City. American interests would be affected – but not radically so – if Canada or Mexico defected from NAFTA. Disaster would be the assumed impact on either of the peripheral states should the United States abrogate. Following their virtually complete integration in the continental economy, they would be forced to their knees if Washington threatened to terminate its participation in the agreement, a technique it used when it forced Hawaii to join the United States late in the nineteenth century” (2002: 41).
Clarkson advocated for a systematic comparison of the situation of the two weaker countries partly for analytical reasons, but also for political reasons, since the possibility of constructing a “solidarity of the weak” represented an important (perhaps only) tool for counteracting the disproportionate power of the United States in the agreement. He was, however clear-eyed about the obstacles to such cooperation.
In addition to the asymmetry that characterizes the North American region, he also recognized the fundamental “imbalance” – the discrepancy between the US-Canada relationship and the US-Mexico one. In Does North America Exist he asks whether this discrepancy is being diminished “as the two peripheral countries become more similar in their US relations” (18). In particular he focuses on the possibility that “the development of the third North American bilateral has helped Mexico to become more like its northern counterpart and so reduce the imbalance with Canada of its periphery-centre relationship.” He also asks whether North America has evolved away from its origins as essentially “two separate bilateral relationships to a more trilateral space” (19). I think he is saying no to the second question but yes (somewhat) to the first one, and that the current situation seems to point to the possibility of greater convergence between the two peripheral partners.
Canada and Mexico – Toward a Partnership of the Weak?
In Chapter 18 of Does North America Exist, Clarkson focuses directly on the development of the “third bilateral” relationship, that between Canada and Mexico. He begins with a recognition that a feature of the “old North America” (pre-NAFTA, even though Mexico was then still geographically part of the continent) was “Canada’s manifest disinclination – in terms of both economic self-interest and intellectual curiosity – to connect with Mexico. The opposite was equally true: even though Mexico’s exports to Canada were considerable, its political and cultural connections were minimal.” (2008: 417).
This lack of mutual knowledge or interest is developed more extensively by other scholars, including our mutual friend, María Teresa Gutiérrez-Haces. In Los Vecinos del Vecino (The Neighbours of the Neighbour), Gutiérrez-Haces traces the way in which the character of the Mexican and Canadian states have been modified as a result of the relationship with their neighbour, the United States. She examines how “the two semiperipheries of the United States, represented by Canada and Mexico, have responded in a parallel, sometimes simultaneous, and on numerous occasions inconsistent fashion, to the U.S. neighbourhood” (2015: 14, my translation).
Canada was initially alarmed about Washington’s decision to agree to Mexico’s request to enter into an FTA that would threaten Canada’s privileged access to the U.S. market, and decided to agree to a trilateral agreement in a defensive move to protect its hard-won gains in the earlier negotiations. Clarkson elaborates on how Canadian and Mexican officials slowly began to overcome their mutual disinterest as they first negotiated the NAFTA agreement, and after the agreement came into force senior officials interacted and got to know each other more (Clarkson 2008: 418). Economic interaction also increased fairly rapidly, although Mexico still represented a tiny market for Canada.
At the same time, the two countries continued to view each other as rivals for U.S. affections, and Mexico was concerned about Canadian multilateral involvement in promoting international human rights in the late 1990s (419). Despite occasional opportunities for collaboration, Canadian diplomats “resisted being associated in US politicians’ minds with a Mexico that translated politically as illegal immigration and narco-traffic”. (420). Canada also rebuffed the proposals of the first democratically elected Mexican president Vicente Fox, who in 2000 pushed for a deepening of the North American partnership to promote greater investment in Mexican development (421).
According to Clarkson, the September 11, 2001 attacks changed North America considerably because of the effects of U.S. (over)reaction to those attacks on the bilateral relationship between Canada and Mexico. Even though there was no increase in trilateral forms of consultation, let alone new continental institutions, the crisis led both Canada and Mexico to recognize their common dilemmas. And the two countries’ foreign policies converged in opposing the U.S. decision to invade Iraq.
One sign of increased cooperation was the creation of the Canada-Mexico Partnership (CMP) in 2004 (based on the model of the 2003 US-Mexico “Partnership for Prosperity”). Five working groups were established on the topics of urban housing, sustainable cities, human capital, competitiveness, and agribusiness. Copying the structure of the US-Mexico Partnership for Prosperity, each working group was headed by one representative from government and one from “civil society” (normally the private sector) from each country. The groups operate in a non-transparent fashion, closed to observers.
As a result, they are hard to evaluate, but, according to Clarkson, appear to be excessively bureaucratic and “oriented to do little more than help the Canadian private sector drum up some business in Mexico” (425). Nevertheless, they contributed to increased interaction between government and business elites from the two countries. Clarkson also discusses the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, which is viewed in a highly positive fashion by both countries, despite criticisms that have been raised by academics and civil society organizations.
Overall, then, by the late 2000s, levels of interaction and limited coordination had been built between the two countries, even if the relationship was still overshadowed by the other two bilaterals – between the US and Canada on the one hand and the US and Mexico on the other. Clarkson judged at this point that this pattern of interaction had “helped Mexico reduce the asymmetry of its relationship with the United States and so diminish the imbalance of the two prime North American bilaterals. With North America’s peripheral members having developed an independent relationship of their own, it is clear that the continent’s governance is more than just a sum of their two relationships with the system’s hegemony”(434).
Constructing The Center Periphery Dynamic- ‘The Two Davids’
However in order to overcome centrifugal tendencies, the periphery could “play a special role in rebuilding the continent’s ‘regionness’ and so constructing US power itself”. This would require change on the part of the United States, but would also require Canadians to sacrifice. Canadians should “accept their own responsibility – and long-term self-interest – in helping Mexico break out of its vicious circles of corruption, criminality, and social disintegration” (Clarkson and Mildenberger 2011: 282); and Mexico itself, as this passage indicates, would have to embark on a difficult project of social, economic and political change.
In Dependent America, Clarkson and Mildenberger decry the fact that under the Harper government, Canada did exactly the opposite of taking responsibility for the situation Mexico faces. Instead, “Canada has played its own part in breaking down whatever trilateral solidarity NAFTA originally represented. Because it feared that its influence in Washington was contaminated by being associated with Mexico, Ottawa has taken pains to turn its back on Mexico. Openly, it instituted offensive visa requirements on Mexican travellers to Canada. Privately, it expressed reticence for a continental trilateralism that would link itself with Mexico in Washington’s eyes. Although the political, economic, and military conditions that had sustained Canada’s cordial transnational political culture with the United States have long since eroded, the Harper government is bent on resurrecting the two countries’ special relationship.”
They thus recognize that in order to break down the region’s disparities, the two “Davids” need to move beyond their differences (without ignoring their different economic, social, and political situations), and learn to work together. And in another prescient passage they warn: “The North American periphery has been Uncle Sam’s gold-laying goose for as long as most can remember. It would make an ironic epitaph for the United States’ hegemonic decline if alienating its most valuable and cultivated foreign asset accelerated its self-induced fall” (272). While Clarkson might not mourn the decline of U.S. power, which Trump’s pitfalls and machinations seem to be accelerating, he also recognized that the collateral effects on the former empire’s neighbours would be devastating.
What does a broad political economy perspective, that incorporates historical structures of oppression and is attuned to the asymmetries of the existing North American region contribute to understanding our current situation? And what can Canada and Mexico do to mitigate the damaging effects of Trump’s actions on their individual and mutual interests?
Trump, North America and Canadian Political Economists – “I told you so”
First, Canadian political economists are entitled to say: “I told you so”! While neoliberals continued to trumpet the clear benefits of free trade (without open borders) for decades, against substantial evidence to the contrary, political economists like Clarkson warned against the potentially devastating impact of the free trade agenda on the lives of ordinary citizens of the region. Although perhaps none of us could have foreseen the exact form blowback might take in the politics of the hegemon, it was not difficult to see that growing inequality would threaten the social contract on which Canada and the United States had built their (limited) versions of Fordism.
And in the case of Mexico, the threats of NAFTA and other neoliberal policies adopted by neoliberal technocrats since the early to mid-1980s were also not difficult to identify, even if few could have predicted the wave of deadly violence that the country has suffered since President Felipe Calderón unleashed his war on drugs in a bid for legitimacy after his closely contested electoral “win” in 2006 over leftist candidate Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador.
And secondly, Clarkson’s analysis indicates the importance of an alliance of the two peripheries in response to the threat they each face in light of the Trump threat to rip up NAFTA, and other threats Trump has wielded against Mexico and Mexicans in the United States in particular.
The instinct of Canadian leaders (and many Canadians) is to distance themselves from Mexico’s problems and insist on the continued relevance of Canada’s supposed “special relationship” with the United States, a notion which, as Clarkson implied, was long obsolete.
This instinct was on display before Trump came to power when Stephen Harper imposed the visa requirement on Mexico, our NAFTA partner, in 2009. This move seemed to defy economic and political logic, since Mexico was one of the few countries where Canada could possibly expect to see significant economic prospects of diversification away from the declining U.S. economy at that moment. Most Canadian economic elites criticized this decision. In 2010, Canada also placed Mexico on a list of “designated countries of origin,” as part of Bill C11 – the “Balanced Refugee Reform Act”. This move suggested that Mexico was a country that was not producing legitimate refugee claimants, in defiance again of logic and evidence, given that country’s high levels of violence, serious record of human rights abuse and widespread impunity.
In the process, Canadian officials shifted from justifying these moves in terms of Mexican “queue jumpers” and “bogus claims,” to linking them in a xenophobic fashion to fears of criminality spreading to Canada as a result of Mexicans’ unrestricted access to the country (Gabriel and Macdonald 2014). This decision of the Harper government caused enormous shock and disappointment among Mexicans at all levels of society, who were accustomed to thinking of Canada as a remote, but friendly partner, and less racist than the United States. One op ed in El Universal, Mexico’s leading newspaper, for example, asked, “How to explain such a clumsy measure as the visas for Mexicans? It is an inefficient decision, since it corrected a relatively small problem by causing one of greater dimensions….[Harper] tried to confuse Mexicans by claiming that a North American trusted traveller program would be adopted. This doesn’t mean eliminating the visas. Furthermore, lacking solid arguments, immediately on returning to Canada he linked the problem of the visas with the incapacity of Mexico to control illegal migration – to Canada? – and even with problems derived from organized crime. This shift in his discourse is at least negative and ultimately counterproductive” (Reyes Heroles 2014, our translation, cited in Gabriel and Macdonald 2014).
The result was a diplomatic showdown and the decision of Harper to postpone and eventually cancel the North American Leaders Summit, scheduled to be held in Canada in 2015, partly because of the tension with Mexico. The deterioration of the relationship between the two peripheries thus contributed to sidelining the entire North America agenda in this period.
The Trudeau Rebuilding Exercise: Summitry and Lifting The Visa Requirement
In contrast, when Justin Trudeau came to office in 2015, one of his main goals was to “renew and repair our relationships with our North American partners”. The Liberal Party election platform stated: “For the past decade, Stephen Harper has led a government that is increasingly partisan, suspicious, and hostile when dealing with our closest neighbours: the United States and Mexico. We will end this antagonism and work with our partners to advance our shared interests. As a first step, we will immediately lift the Mexican visa requirement that unfairly restricts travel to Canada, and commit to rescheduling and hosting a new trilateral leaders’ summit with the United States and Mexico.” (https://www.liberal.ca/realchange/the-united-states-and-mexico/).
Trudeau made good on this promise by hosting the North American Leaders Summit in June 2016 (where his bro-mance with both of his North American counterparts was highlighted for public relations purposes) and lifting the visa requirement for Mexicans in December 2016.
In addition, in October 2016, then-Foreign Affairs minister Stéphane Dion met with his Mexican counterpart, Claudia Ruiz Massieu, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, in the first Canada-Mexico High-Level Strategic Dialogue The meeting was designed to advance on commitments made during Peña Nieto’s state visit to Canada and to promote cooperation in areas such as “cooperation in security and student mobility, best practices in consular management and increasing prosperity for Canadians and Mexicans.” Dion and Ruiz Massieu also discussed the political situations in Colombia, Venezuela and Haiti, reflecting increased willingness to coordinate foreign policy positions on issues in the hemisphere.
They also announced the creation of an annual bilateral dialogue on human rights, reinitiated an annual dialogue on multilateral and global issues, and established a high-level task force bringing together various government departments to address challenges within the extractive sector in Mexico. The creation of the human rights dialogue was especially significant as it displayed the Canadian government’s recognition of the need for serious and open discussion of the many human rights issues facing Mexico, and the Mexican government’s willingness to discuss these sensitive issues with Canadian counterparts, at least behind closed doors.
The election of Donald Trump in November 2016 ended these gradual signs of improvement of the North American relationship. Trump’s rhetoric represented an attempt to re-assert U.S. hegemony in the region and the world. The rhetoric was particularly hostile toward Mexico, with threats to “build a wall” and to make Mexico pay for it, the threat of deportation of 11 million undocumented migrants (and the attendant impact of the drop in remittances), about 5 million of whom are Mexicans, the threat of a border adjustment tax, and the threat to rip up NAFTA. All represented blows to Mexico’s economic and political stability and national pride represented most vividly perhaps in the online ripostes of former President Vicente Fox. The peso hit a record low of 22.03 to the dollar, pressured by concern over a potential trade war between the United States and Mexico.
The economic implications for Mexico are disastrous if even some of these threats are enacted. One Mexican analyst predicted that if Trump fulfills his campaign promises we could see a fall of 4.9% of GDP in the first year of his mandate. These economic problems would aggravate long-standing economic problems with the Mexican economy – the country has experienced low levels of growth since NAFTA took force and poverty and inequality rates remain extremely high.
In response to these threats, the Liberal government initially appeared to retreat to Canada’s long-standing default position, which is to prioritize the U.S. market. Dion was replaced by former trade minister Chrystia Freeland, who was given responsibility for U.S. trade relations and the NAFTA file. On her list of “top priorities” in her mandate letter was to “maintain constructive relations with the United States, Canada’s closest ally and most important economic and security partner”. Dion had been told in his mandate letter to both improve relations with the U.S. “and strengthen trilateral North American cooperation with the United States and Mexico” (MacCharles 2017).
The Canadian Pivot Betting On The Canada US Relationship Most of All
Freeland was apparently selected because of her strong connections in the United States and the perception that the cerebral Dion would not make a good negotiator. The Trudeau government also launched a campaign to make connections with the Trump team, especially with Trump’s influential son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and mobilized a group of well-connected Canadians like former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, to try to get the ear of the new U.S. administration to convince them they had little to gain from picking a fight with Canada. There was much talk of “throwing Mexico under the bus” (Carmichael 2017). Although Freeland stated after taking on her new position that Canada supported NAFTA as a trilateral agreement and had spoken with Mexican colleagues, senior officials were quoted as saying there was no intention of creating a common front against the U.S. over NAFTA since this could bring heat onto Canada (Ljunggren 2017).
A January 24th, 2017 Reuters article quoted government sources on the sidelines of a cabinet retreat who stated that Canada would focus on its own bilateral relationship with the U.S. and would not step in to protect Mexico from being targeted: “We love our Mexican friends. But our national interests come first and the friendship comes second,” The same sources stated Canada and Mexico had little in common: “Trump is unhappy about the large U.S. deficit with Mexico and has promised to punish firms with manufacturing bases there.” Another source quoted in the same article stated: “Our negotiating positions are totally different. Mexico is being hung out of a skyscraper window by its feet,” (Ljunggren 2017).
Former Canadian ambassador to the U.S. under Brian Mulroney and NAFTA negotiator Derek Burney has been called upon to provide advice to the Trudeau government on the current situation. Burney told Maclean’s Evan Solomon (2017) that Canada should immediately abandon its relationship with Mexico: “We should not indulge in ridiculous posturing – like getting together with Mexico to defend our interests, when Canada has very different economic interests than Mexico. It is a fundamental error to conflate them.” Trump appeared to be engaging in “divide and conquer” rhetoric by talking about merely “tweaking” the relationship with Canada while engaging in fierce attacks on Mexico that led to the cancellation of the planned visit of President Peña Nieto to Washington.
Mexicans were certainly not oblivious to the Trudeau government’s wavering commitment to its NAFTA partner. Prominent Mexican academic and media commentator Denise Dresser published a blistering op ed (2017) in the Globe and Mail, which stated that despite the presence of many Canadian companies in Mexico, “Mexico has never been part of Canadians’ mental map. It remained a distant, unknown, uninteresting place, rarely covered by the media, rarely part of the conversation.” And since Mexico became Trump’s “whipping boy,” she noted with disappointment the “weighty silence” of Trudeau, Freeland and Canadians in general about the depiction of Mexicans and the idea that Canada would dump Mexico and negotiate a bilateral FTA with Washington: “But today, we are disappointed and with good reason. It seems that Canada is compassionate, but on a case-by-case basis. It appears that Canada extolls its inclusive identity, but when push comes to shove, that identity is not tied to North America or to Mexico. Canada has the right to renegotiate NAFTA on its own terms, to ignore the plight of displaced and persecuted Mexicans. It can even turn a blind eye to the recently discovered mass grave in the southern state of Veracruz, with 250 victims of the country’s continuing violence.
But please, at the very least, don’t wrap yourselves in the flag of moral self-righteousness. Canada’s treatment of Mexico reveals the country as it truly is: a place not that different from the United States, where interests matter more than principles, where interests are more important than ideals. And please remember the next time you open the door to a Syrian, you just slammed it in the face of a Mexican.”
Is Canada Dumping Mexico?
Former Mexican foreign minister Andrés Rozental (2017) also denounced the strategy of dumping Mexico: “The Trump presidency should bring Mexico and Canada much closer together, not tear us apart. Whatever trade or investment measures the U.S. applies to our country may end up harming Canada as well and destroying the competitive advantages that the North American value chain has brought since NAFTA came into force 23 years ago.”
Other long-time NAFTA analysts and advocates like Colin Robertson have urged the Canadian government to establish common cause with Mexico, expressing the view that Canada could not avoid experiencing collateral damage with any Trump administration protectionist measures against our NAFTA partner, even if Canada was not the main target. John Weekes, Canada’s chief negotiator for NAFTA, responded to suggestions that he had received that Canada should pre-emptively pull out of NAFTA, reverting to the 1988 Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement, to distance itself from Mexico. “I understand the psychology,” They think the Trump administration sees Canada as good guys, “and the Mexicans as a bunch of rapists,” so we can do better without them. “But we don’t know what the hell [the U.S.] will propose…What’s the advantage in acting?” (Clark 2017).
Former Canadian ambassador to Washington, Michael Kergin, stated, “He’s certainly got Mexico in his sights but it’s a three-way agreement. What hits Mexico will inevitably have an impact on us.” Similarly, former CUFTA negotiator Gordon Ritchie stated, “If barriers are put up against Mexican imports into the United States, we would be affected because of supply chains” (Freeman 2017). Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Makers Association of Canada claimed that the “sentiment ‘we can do this bilaterally’ will damage the prospects for the auto sector, which relies on trilateral relationships and [product] flows” (Fife 2017).
These reactions suggest that Canadian elites recognize that North America is indeed a region, however dysfunctional, and that any disruption to one of the “prime bilaterals,” in Clarkson’s terms, would seriously affect the other. In any case, it appears that the Trudeau government realized that its early reaction was short-sighted. As well, a month later, in the light of the chaos and ineffectiveness of the Trump regime, it appeared that standing beside Mexico was not as risky as it had initially thought. On February 21, 2017, Freeland assured Mexico that Canada would stand beside Mexico and would not seek a bilateral deal with the U.S. Freeland phrased this as a technical response to the nature of NAFTA: “…we very much recognize that NAFTA is a three-country agreement, and if there were to be any negotiations, those would be three-way negotiations,” even if some issues would be discussed with the United States on a bilateral basis.
Trade minister François-Philippe Champagne reiterated in a visit to Mexico in March that “NAFTA is a three-nation agreement. So the way to renegotiate a three-nation agreement is on a trilateral basis”. Nevertheless, when push comes to shove, it is possible that Canada may revert to its bilateralist impulse if Canada and Mexico are unable to agree on negotiating positions, or if Trump insists on punishing Mexico while somehow exempting Canada from protectionist measures.
The Clarkson Legacy
Stephen Clarkson has left us – too early – but has left behind a rich body of analysis that will help us interpret the monumental challenges we face as a country and a region. There is much to be learned from his work about the limitations of the NAFTA model and what measures states and leaders can and should adopt to achieve a better neighbourhood. As I have discussed in this short essay, despite his nationalist political leanings, he was an early and consistent internationalist in his intellectual interests. Nowhere was this more evident than in his treatment of the Canada-Mexico relationship. The emergence of the Trump challenge has heightened both the insecurities and vulnerabilities of both countries, and the importance that they work together.
Clarkson was highly critical of the anachronistic and close-minded tendencies of Canadian leaders who reflexively tend to shy away from the Mexican liaison. Most of his work focused on the actions wise Canadian leaders could take to improve our country’s position, but he viewed Mexico as an inevitable and necessary partner in limiting the power of the U.S. hegemon in the North American region. Unlike some government and business spokespersons who also advocate working with Mexico, he also recognized that in order to build a healthy region Mexico needs to undertake tough reforms to address the problems of inequality, poverty, corruption and violence that afflict that nation. Moving away from the neoliberal model that Mexico has embraced since the mid-1980s is a fundamental first step toward that objective, even though such a shift would not be welcomed by business elites.
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