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North American Futures

(A link to this article was provided in the Newsletter of the Canadian Association of Defence Organizations on 6 July:


While the relations among Canada, Mexico and the United States have historically had their share of downsides, relations among the three states have thrived in recent decades. This has owed in no small part to the mutually beneficial arrangements they have known as partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement. Donald Trump’s presidency has, however, cast a long shadow over the trilateral North American relationship.

This article will look at four scenarios that speculate as to how relations within and among the US, Canada and Mexico might evolve over the next twenty years or so.

One scenario has the United States stopping the current incumbent in his tracks electorally or legally and reverting to its pre-Trump status as the world’s leading democracy, defender of liberal values and protagonist of globalisation. This scenario could be called RETURN TO NORMALCY.

A second scenario anticipates a situation in which Trump’s America gravitates from one in which the traditional mechanisms of democratic oversight are challenged by the Trump Presidency, as is now clearly underway, into one where we witness an overt effort, and possibly a successful one, to create an American autocracy. Call this the EMERGING AMERCAN AUTOCRACY.

A third scenario is an extension of the second. It presupposes that an American autocracy will have significant – and overwhelmingly negative – repercussions for the way key states of the American union interact with Washington and for inter-state cooperation within both Canada and Mexico, as well as for cross-border relations along America’s northern and southern borders. Call this CONTINENTAL COLLAPSE.

The fourth scenario envisages a rather different kind of future in which the three North American States rise above their current differences and forge an enhanced multilateral relationship, moving beyond NAFTA to a North American Federation.

Back to Normalcy or an Emerging American Autocracy?

North Americans – whether they reside in Canada, the US or Mexico – have long tended to think that what has always been will always be.

There have, of course, been dramatic disruptions in the North American polity. 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 jurisdiction for 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 rather less quiet than the US-Canadian one in the 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 succeeded 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 tripling of the overall commercial exchanges among the three partners. The two most important destinations for US exports are Mexico and Canada, which take one-third of the 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. The American political class has failed to develop policies to cushion job losses, such as offering retraining and more generally supporting adversely affected communities to adjust to the new economic circumstances that have emerged with the NAFTA agreement. The lost jobs are not coming back, however much stateside politicians insist they will. And while NAFTA has been anything but perfect, 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. Until recently, he has been comparatively easy on Canadians. With the imposition of tariffs on Canadian aluminum and steel imports, as well as on those of Mexico and the European Union, this has changed. Overall, Trump’s trade war on America’s North American neighbours undermines the economic interests of all three parties and could in time have major security implications.

How the current American political situation will move on from here is anything but clear. I expect that most North Americans want to believe that a continuity of sort will prevail. So, after four or eight years of bashing America’s neighbours, and undermining the fundaments of US democracy, the US electorate that gave the sitting President his electoral college victory would return to its senses, and after much mopping up, things would gradually return to normal.

I wish I could believe in such a course of events. Here is why I do not.

As has become increasingly clear as the Muller investigation has proceeded, Trump is politically and legally vulnerable. We do not yet know exactly how. He may be subject to blackmail. He may have committed financial crimes. He and his family members have tended to use the Presidency as a vehicle for self-enrichment. Trump may want to become as rich as Russian President Putin – according to some sources, worth as much as 200 billion dollars – on the payrolls of states that seek to make America ungovernable at home and unreliable abroad, and those of American private sector interests that have their own domestic and foreign policy agendas and are prepared to pay to see them acted upon.

Against this background, I give little credence to the notion that Trump will sooner rather than later be impeached or elected out of office, and all will then fall back into place soon or easily. I rather expect that the rule of law will be subjected to an unprecedentedly huge challenge as the Muller probe moves closer to revealing the President’s relationship with Russia and the role thereby of his family members.

Trump has effectively taken over the Republican party from its traditional conservative element. He currently enjoys a high eighties approval rating among Republicans. Even if Muller’s investigation continues without massive interruptions and tries to hold Trump to account for his various transgressions, it is hard to imagine how the rule of law would end up prevailing in today’s America, certainly over the short-term.

And note with his so-called tax reform, Trump has effectively bribed most of the Congress to stay on his side, or at the very least to only oppose him merely weakly.

Continental Collapse

If the Trumpist revolution prevails, it seems likely to spawn two overwhelmingly negative tendencies in the North American polity as a whole.

One would have key sub-statal actors in one or the other or all three of the North American states attempting to defect. It is not too difficult to imagine a situation in which a New York, a California, a Texas or a Florida would seek to bail from a dysfunctional America.

The real and potential faultlines in contemporary America are several. The 2016 Presidential election gave the Democrats supremacy on much of the East and West coasts and in most of the country’s big metropolises. Since the election, many of these constituencies have staked out positions in opposition to those adopted by Trump and his Republican party-controlled Congress.

These have ranged across a wide spectrum, from the role of local authorities in not helping federal authorities detain immigrants without the requisite papers, to the responsibility of states in protecting their environmental interests in the face of the Trump campaign against the Paris Climate Change accord and his effort to make the energy industries of a bygone era great again, to states staking out significantly differing positions on socio-cultural and identity issues from those championed by the current Administration.

Such differences could have a centrifugal impact across the continental US. And enhanced centrifugalism in the United States would be likely to strengthen similar tendencies in neighbouring Canada and Mexico.

So 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 recent referendum there.

Canada’s contradictions do not just lie on a Francophone/Anglophone axis. For example, there is the ongoing dispute between the country’s two most westerly provinces, British Columbia and Alberta. The former, under its present government, has said no to a pipeline that would bring crude oil from Alberta to ports on the western coast whence it could be exported to Asian destinations. A similar conflict exists between energy-rich Alberta and pipeline-shy Quebec and Ontario about the eastward movement of Alberta’s energy resources. And note that the pipeline issue also has a cross-border dimension. In 2012, then US President Obama blocked the construction of a multi-billion dollar pipeline that would have taken Albertan oil to Texas. Ontario, Canada’s biggest province has just elected a populist in the mould of Trump who wants to take down the federal government’s commitment to meet the international environmental accords that it has entered into.

If Ottawa fails to effectively manage its relationship with key Canadian provinces and/or with Washington on energy issues, we might expect this to enhance centrifugal tendencies across the Canadian Confederation and perhaps even spark discussion of alternate ways for the country’s provinces to relate to the US.

To America’s south, there are also active and potential faultlines in the Mexican federal state. One involves the northern Mexican states that have profited most from NAFTA and would have most to lose from its abrogation – and whose taxes support the poorer south of the country. One of the two southern regions consists of Oaxaca, Chiapas and Guerrero, a focal point of indigenous alienation, in particular that of the Zapatistas, who have abandoned confrontational politics in recent years but still command a significant following. The other southern region is constituted by the Mayan communities of the Yucatan peninsula, who have had a tenuous relationship with Mexico since its independence. Then, there is the region formed by the federal capital and a number of other central states. Historically, this is the heartland of Aztec civilization, from which central control has traditionally been exercised. It would not take much to ignite serious tensions between the historical centre and the three peripheral regions that have historically tended to accept its authority only conditionally. And worsening inter-state relations within Mexico would be likely to have repercussions for social peace along America’s southern border.

A similar process is thinkable along the US northern frontier. Canada has water, energy resources, a population that is roughly ten percent of America’s and that is much more white, 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 that Canada is in no position to defend.

If Trump or a like-minded successor succeeds in establishing an American autocracy, he or she could likely be on the prowl for an easy victory. Canada could provide one.

Mexico is also potentially easy prey. Note that a left-wing politician by the name of Lopéz Obrador has resoundedly won the 2018 presidential elections. How he will go from here is unclear. Some see Lopez Obrador following the footsteps of Chavez in Venezuela, whose Bolivarian revolution he has failed to condemn. Some see him as a Mexican Trump, a scrupulous populist who will go with whatever he can get away with. Still, others see him as a successful major of Mexico City, one of the world’s largest metropolises, who proved himself capable of addressing the towering security and corruption challenges that are at the core of Mexico’s ongoing political dysfunctionality. The most concerning aspect of Obrador’s profile is that he has appealed to the Mexican voter to support him as a benevolent strongman, one that rejects the country’s democratic – and admittedly largely dysfunctional – institutions as opposed to trying to reform them.

More than thirty-five percent of the US population is of Mexican origin, some sixty percent of them residing in Texas and California. Trump has effectively labeled them “Untermenschen” in a manner reminiscent of Hitler’s denigration of the Jews in the 1930s. And not to be forgotten 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.


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 is 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, and Latinos that have taken to learning English.

As in the case of the European Union, this process 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.

Movement towards a North American Federation would require a qualitative change in the current political conversation in all three of the North American democracies. But were it to be forthcoming, there could be advances across several critical policy axes:

first, the broadening of opportunities for academic, civil society and professional exchanges with a view to fostering more robust islands of continental civil society;

second, the streamlining and strengthening of seasonal and long-term arrangements for cross-border employment with a view to creating a truly functional North American labour market;

third, the development of trilateral security cooperation through such measures as the integration of Mexico into NATO, the establishment of viable continental systems for 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- it is this region that is currently generating most of the northwards migration towards the US southern border;

fifth, the elaboration of joint programmes to address climate change and in particular the increasingly severe weather patterns that affect all three countries.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. That said, to go the route described above would require political leadership – and I daresay a mobilization of the masses – of a rarely seen kind in contemporary North America. 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. In any event, the requisite political conviction and capacity is not on hand at present in any of the three North American states, and there is little that suggests that it may emerge any time soon.


To conclude, these scenarios tell stories about how the North American present might morph along different pathways 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 where we are heading. 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.

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.

#North American futures

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