Whither North America? Here are four scenarios recounting how relations within and among the US, Canada and Mexico might evolve over the next twenty years or so. The current situation and how it may move on from here I have named The Present Plus. The other three, which I will look at in the second and third parts of this post, I have called Border Wars, Defecting Actors, and From NAFTA to NAF.
Part I: The Present Plus
North Americans – whether they reside in Canada, the US or Mexico – tend to think that what has always been will always be – notwithstanding the emergence of Donald Trump as US President and his anti-immigrant and anti-free-trade propos. They may be a bit more inclined this way than people in other regions of the world because of their history of largely pacific relations.
There have, of course, been exceptions. In 1812, the US declared war against Canada, at that time under British control and not yet a country. The war ended three years later with no territorial alterations. The border has been one of the quietest in the world ever since.
In 1836, Texas declared its independence from Mexico, joining the US in 1845. The following year, the US and Mexico went to war over the jurisdiction over the northern reaches of the territory of the then remaining Mexico. This conflict was settled largely in America’s favour in 1848. The US-Mexican frontier has been less quiet than the Canadian one in intervening years but the two countries have not seen another round of armed cross-border conflict since.
That inter-state relationships have tended to be harmonious for most of the recent history of the region has had much to do with the trading regimes that have governed the commercial interaction among the three countries. In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the US, Canada and Mexico was brought into being. This built on the US-Canada Free Trade Agreement (FTA), concluded six years before.
The economic benefits from NAFTA have been huge. It has been estimated that the agreement has led to a half-point increase in the GDP of the three trading partners since its inception and a tripling of their overall commercial exchanges. With only 7 percent of the world’s population, NAFTA is now the largest trading block in the world. The two most important destinations for US exports are Mexico and Canada, which take one-third of its total. NAFTA has produced significant economic growth in the Mexican borderland. Mexicans returning from the US now outnumber those trying, illegally or otherwise, to move northwards.
NAFTA has had its defects. But the problem has been mainly political, not economic. The benefits of the free trade regime have not always been fairly and broadly shared. In particular, successive American governments have failed to develop policies to cushion job losses in traditional industries, such as retraining and other programmes to help affected communities to adjust to the new circumstances brought about by NAFTA.
The jobs that have been lost are not coming back, however much however many stateside politicians insist they will. NAFTA has not been perfect, but I expect that the European Union would be more than happy to have developed a similar regime with its neighbours across the Mediterranean and in the broader Middle East.
Donald Trump has called all this into question. The US President has sought to exploit resentment against Mexicans for electoral purposes. He has yet been comparatively easy on Canadians but this could change. Overall, Trump is waging a major onslaught on NAFTA that undermines the economic interests of all three parties and could in time have major security implications.
How this will move on from here is anything but clear. I expect that most North Americans want to believe that a continuity of sorts, notwithstanding the Trump’s challenges to its fundaments, will prevail. So, after four or eight years of Mexico- and perhaps also Canada-bashing, a significant portion of the American electorate that gave the sitting President his electoral college victory would return to its senses, and after much mopping up, things would soon return to normal.
There are two reasons to be sceptical about such a course. First, there would seem to be a better than even chance that Trump will attempt to establish an American autocracy, a political system something similar to what now prevails in Russia or Turkey. For why I think this is a possibility, see my On the Emerging American Dictatorship.
Second, even if this does not happen, it will likely take the American political class more than a couple of Administrations to carry out the reforms necessary to put American democracy back on track and to ensure that future Trumps do not emerge.
Part II. Border Wars and Defecting Actors
The Trump Presidency has already had a hugely destabilizing impact on inter-state relations within North America. If it continues on its present path, the North Americans could find themselves confronted with two other highly problematical scenarios.
This scenario involves growing tensions along America’s northern and southern borders, including the possibility of cross-border conflict.
Canada has water, energy resources, a population that is roughly ten percent of America’s and that is 80% white – whereas in the US the proportion is around 60& – a territory that is roughly the size of that of the US and includes massive Arctic territories abutting seas that are poised to become increasingly accessible and economically relevant, and which Canada is in no position to defend.
While Canada has world class armed forces, successive Canadian governments have tended to try to keep them out of harm’s way in an effort to avoid causalities and potential political embarrassments in an increasingly questionable attachment to the Pearsonian peacekeeping paradigm of lore. This concept was history-making in its time but it no longer has a mainstream role to play in the world we live in.
If Trump or a like-minded successor were to succeed in establishing an American dictatorship, he or she would be on the prowl for an easy victory. Canada could provide one.
Mexico is also a potentially easy target. Note that a left-wing politician, many would say populist, by the name of Lopéz Obrador, seems poised to win the Mexican presidential elections in 2018. Some see Lopez Obrador following the footsteps of Chavez in Venezuela. Others believe his anti-equality and anti-corruption campaigns are crucially important for Mexico’s modernization and deserve a chance.
In any event, more than thirty-five percent of the US population is of Mexican origin. Trump has effectively labeled them “Untermenschen” in a manner reminiscent of Hitler’s denigration of the Jews in the 1930s. On top of all this, there is Mexico’s loss of a significant portion of its territory to the US in the middle of the nineteenth century. This is a potentially explosive mix.
Another scenario is one whereby key sub-statal actors in one or the other or all three of the North American states attempt to defect. It is not too difficult to imagine a situation in which a New York, a California, a Texas or a Florida decide to bail from a dysfunctional America. Already we see California, for example, developing its own environmental programmes in defiance of the Trumpist denial of global warming. Several states have as well declared themselves sanctuaries where cooperation will not be provided to federal authorities moving to expel residents whose residence papers may be lacking but are otherwise in good standing.
Opposition to Washington could also have a centrifugal impact across US borders, affect jurisdictions in neighbouring Canada and Mexico. Note that some sixty percent of the Mexicans living in the US reside in Texas and California.
In Canada, the idea of Quebec separating from the Canadian Confederation still enjoys significant, while well less than majority, support. It was instructive, however, to observe how all parties favouring Quebec independence jumped on the bandwagon of the Catalonian independentist movement after the October referendum.
To the American south, there are also sub-national movements – in particular in Chiapas and the Yucatan peninsula – that have traditionally been estranged from the Mexican federal republic. More recently, there have signs that jurisdictions in more central parts of the country, fed up with the crime and corruption associated with the federal government, are trying to put in place alternative arrangements at the sub-national level. This is the case, for example, of Ciudad Nezahualioyotli, a major urban conglomeration just outside Mexico’s capital city.
Part III. From NAFTA to a North American Federation
A fourth scenario to consider is one of a North America that moves beyond its current contradictions and works towards becoming a continental federation. This would be consistent with the logic of the three entities’ longer and larger history. It is in their economic, political, cultural and strategic interest, the underlying idea being that there are several policy areas where the three country’s policies can no longer be formulated in isolation from one another.
This would be a colossal undertaking. Yet, important first steps have been taken with NAFTA, burgeoning cross-border immigration and tourism, and the increasing numbers of Americans and Canadians without a Latino background that have taken to learning Spanish.
As in the case of the European Union, it would likely only take form in several phases: first, say, by accomplishing the modernized NAFTA that Canada, Mexico and the many US states dependent on trade with them, seem to aspire to; second, by moving on this fundament in the direction of a North American Community and lastly, by working towards more comprehensive forms of shared decision-making in a federated structure.
This would by definition have to be a highly-asymmetric union, with sub-units assuming major powers in a not necessarily uniform way. This would be a complicated paradigm but one that would also roughly correspond to the manner in which decision-making prerogatives are currently handled in all three states.
Along the way, I could envisage movement across several critical policy axes.
First, the broadening of opportunities for academic, civil society and professional exchanges with a view to fostering islands of continental civil society.
Second, the streamlining and strengthening of seasonal and long-term arrangements for cross-borders employment with a view to creating a North American labour market.
Third, the development of trilateral security cooperation through such measures as the integration of Mexico into NATO, continental sea- and air-border defence and joint border patrolling.
Fourth, the targeting of joint outreach measures aimed at fostering more stable development in and greater cooperation with Central America: a North American Federation could be expected to provide stimuli for similar cooperation projects to Mexico’s south.
Fifth, the elaboration, of joint programmes to address climate change and in particular the increasingly severe weather patterns that often affect all three countries in their wake.
Finally, the initiation of cooperation at the legislative level, currently thematically under-developed and mainly restricted to bilateral forms of consultation, whereby the ultimate goal would be the building of a continental parliamentary structure with powers of oversight over issues affecting all three countries.
To go this route described above would require political leadership – and I daresay a mobilization of the masses – of a rarely seen kind. In the process, all three countries would have to step back from their national exceptionalisms, a process that could bring benefits both within North America and internationally. All that said, the requisite political conviction and capacity is nowhere in sight at the present time, and there is little that suggests that it might emerge any time soon in any of the three North American states.
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To conclude, these scenarios tell stories about how the North American present might morph into various futures over the next generation or so. They are not either/or propositions. They owe their usefulness to the windows they open on to our thinking about what can happen next. They may end up being consecutive. They can combine. Cumulatively, they might not anticipate the emerging big picture. But as stories about the different ways the present may become future, they can help us better understand and prepare for what may happen next, and what we can do about it.
These four scenarios do not address the issue of how events extraneous to North America will affect its trajectory. They obviously will. My sense is, however, that while outside events can strengthen or weaken the impact of one or the other story, the structure outlined above will remain a useful way for understanding North America’s future trajectory.
But check back with me in twenty years or so.
For more on scenario-planning, go to this link on David Law’s website. http://www.davidmlaw.com/scenarios-for-the-worlds-strategic-futures-3/