The Wilson Quarterly

Robert Pastor is an extraordinary thinker who happens to have extraordinarily bad timing. His previous book on North America, Toward a North American Community, brought together all the best arguments for a post-NAFTA deepening of regional cooperation among the United States, Canada, and Mexico. But it was published just before 9/11, after which no one in Washington wanted to hear about “streamlining” America’s borders, especially if the proposal was framed as lessons drawn from European integration.

Since then, most of those who had jumped on the North American bandwagon have jumped off again, but Pastor, the founding director of the Center for North American Studies at American University, has stuck tenaciously to his call for a trilateral community. His new book, The North American Idea, was not written with the aim of influencing bureaucrats and business leaders, but rather of convincing the broader “attentive public” and rising political leaders to set aside old conceptions of sovereignty and move toward a regional future. Even as he was writing the book, however, Mexico was overwhelmed by a wave of violent crime and the United States was staggered by a financial crisis that turned into a deep recession that was also felt in Canada and Mexico. And again the political confidence and creativity Pastor was counting on seem to have evaporated.

The core of the book is Pastor’s argument for a rejuvenation of trilateral policy coordination, aimed at creating a regional community of nations (not, as he is at pains to make clear, a political union like that in Europe). He argues that the North American Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect in 1994, was generally good for all three economies. But its benefits and limitations were not well understood, and it stirred up deep-seated anxieties about national identity and sovereignty. After 9/11, political leaders weren't able to work together on security challenges, the result being onerous border restrictions that rolled back the extraordinary economic growth NAFTA had unleashed. Now North America is faced with a new set of transnational challenges, including immigration, drug trafficking, and infrastructure building, that call for new regional initiatives.

For years, Pastor has been vilified by critics on both the left and the right as the mastermind behind an elite conspiracy to pursue “integration by stealth.” Here he turns that argument upside down, making the case that the general public in all three countries is actually supportive of (or at least open to) closer cooperation, and that the real opponents are blowhard pundits (e.g., the United States’ Lou Dobbs) and antiglobalization activists (e.g., Canada’s Maude Barlow), along with lazy, shortsighted business leaders and politicians.

Pastor argues that the status quo—three sets of national policies working at cross-purposes, “dual bilateralism,” and a general tendency to fight fires rather than coordinate proactively—is growing more and more dysfunctional. His accounts of NAFTA’s limitations and the pernicious effects of political neglect are compelling. He makes the case, for example, that trivial differences in the regulated height and weight of trucks on U.S., Canadian, and Mexican highways are a persistent form of hidden protectionism. Consumers end up paying for the cost of transferring a load of, say, produce to several different trucks in its trip from a Mexican field to an American supermarket.

Most readers will probably agree that each government has something to gain from closer cooperation with its neighbors, and that the region’s governments need to build some kind of new institutional structure. But many in the United States will balk at Pastor’s arguments that some post-9/11 border security measures should be replaced with a new system based on preclearance of previously screened travelers and transport companies, and that support of Mexico’s economic development will produce dividends for the United States.

The most problematic part of the core argument is the pitch for a specifically trilateral community, as opposed to the established tendency to rely on bilateral talks, even within supposedly regional forums such as the Security and Prosperity Partnership. Ultimately, Pastor’s argument for trilateralism boils down to his pointing out that dual bilateralism hasn't worked. This is a sensible argument, but it is not likely to win over the skeptics, especially in Canada, where many still worry that Mexico is a dead weight and believe they are better off focusing on the bilateral “special relationship” with the United States.

Pastor concludes with an overview of specific policy areas that would benefit from greater trilateral coordination: development assistance, transportation and infrastructure, customs, and regulation. Policy specialists may be frustrated at the lack of practical guidance, but that is not what this book is for. When Toward a North American Community was published in 2001, there was political momentum for trilateral dialogue, and policy advice was what was needed. Today, the challenge is to renew the dialogue itself, and that is what The North American Idea is all about.

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Brian Bow, a political scientist at Dalhousie University and a former Wilson Center scholar, is the author of The Politics of Linkage: Power, Interdependence, and Ideas in Canada-U.S. Relations (2009). 

Reviewed"The North American Idea: A Vision of a Continental Future" by Robert A. Pastor, Oxford University Press, 2011.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/grant rambojun

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