As we reflect on the 20th anniversary of the signing of the North American free-trade agreement by Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, we should be considering that deal as the foundation for regional consolidation and collaboration for the next 20 years.
While NAFTA was groundbreaking at the time, we need to move beyond trade relations to get in the habit of thinking as North Americans on many additional fronts. And while the financial turmoil, geopolitical upheavals and socio-economic adjustments that have taken place since Dec. 17, 1992, might have distracted from general enthusiasm for the region, global developments since that date actually confirm – and strengthen – the case for thinking of North America as a community, and as a community of interests.
Today, North Americans not only trade with each other but also work together, make things together, learn together and face challenges together. But to prepare for the future, the people of North America need to push their leaders to build frameworks and institutions that enable their populations to do more together. By doing things together, we do them better.
North American trade and competitiveness took off in NAFTA’s initial years, but the impact of 9/11 dampened much of the economic advantage for several years. Meantime, the emergence of China as a global economic superpower, along with the opportunities provided by other new and exotic labour and export markets, distracted us from the North American idea. More recently, however, with wage differentials between China and Mexico decreasing, transportation costs increasing, Europe’s various upheavals, and Mexico’s demographic profile trumping that of other emerging countries, the outlook for North America looks rosier than it has for the much of the past decade.
So the occasion of NAFTA’s 20th anniversary is an ideal time to encourage North Americans – particularly the post-NAFTA generation – to get in the habit of considering possibilities for the region that extend past the original trade and investment profile, possibilities that reach beyond economics, beyond trade and beyond production and value chains.
Since NAFTA’s signing, climate change, health pandemics and food security have been recognized as major global challenges for humanity in the 21st century. What trio of national populations is better positioned than North Americans to address these global challenges together? And what trio of continental neighbours is as endowed with the complementarities that position it to deal with tough issues together?
The combination of a large, industrially developed, technologically advanced, entrepreneurial nation, a resource-rich middle power with a history of playing “honest broker,” and an emerging democracy with a strong demographic advantage, phenomenal biodiversity, a rapidly expanding middle class and membership in a variety of transnational networks makes a powerful regional triumvirate for tackling global challenges. Furthermore, the differing socio-economic and geopolitical perspectives that each of the three North American countries bring to bear on the world’s problems means the solutions they develop would be inclusive, fair and legitimate.
While we can do much together on a less lofty scale that taking on the major challenges to humanity, an aspirational vision helps develop and enhance habits of co-operation and collaboration. Our three countries’ innate complementarities – economic structure, geographic location, technological development, natural and labour resources – mean it simply makes sense for us to get in the habit of working together.
Just a few areas where we could develop habits of acting and being North American include agriculture, encompassing innovation and agribusiness; energy, including technology and services; and financial and health services, including mobile technology. Furthermore, bearing in mind that 50 per cent of the Mexican population is under 26, the potential for collaboration on a huge range of traditional and emerging creative industries is enormous. Each of these areas holds possibilities of the development of partnerships on a vast multitude of fronts.
Twenty years on, let’s be celebrating four decades of North American habits of thinking, doing, creating, solving and leading. Or better yet, let’s be taking it for granted.
Jennifer Jeffs is president of the Canadian International Council.