Albert Einstein, who knew something about ideas, once wrote: "A great thought begins by seeing something differently, with a shift of the mind's eye." It's time for Canada, the United States and Mexico to change the way they see each other and the way they address their shared problems. The failure to make that change has resulted in chronic problems and lost opportunities.
Consider this case. During the recession, all three governments decided to stimulate their economies without considering their interdependence. In its 2009 bill, the U.S. Congress included a "Buy American" provision to bar Canada, Mexico and other countries from supplying iron, steel or manufactured goods for public projects. The provision violated the North American free-trade agreement and Canada rightly protested, spending substantial funds lobbying Congress and negotiating a waiver. The U.S. finally relented, but, last September, President Barack Obama asked Congress for a jobs bill with a similar provision.
The U.S. perception of its neighbours didn't change, and the "Buy American" idea spread into a huge movement. A Harris poll found that 61 per cent of Americans preferred products "made in America." In his new book, Bill Clinton recommends the website, "How Americans Can Buy American," and Mr. Obama's State of the Union address was a rallying cry for the same theme.
Seeking a "Canadian exemption" against such a movement is like trying to stop a tsunami with your hands. Instead of trying to eliminate a negative, Canada should try to catch the wave with an affirmative. Inserting just one word – "North" – in the middle of the "Buy American" movement might do that and begin to change the way Americans think about themselves and their neighbours. When Americans think about North America, however, they include Mexico.
"Buy North American" could be the mantra for helping the U.S. recognize the importance of both neighbours. Few Americans know that the two key markets for their exports and source of energy imports are Canada and Mexico. Our trade with each other enhances our collective competitiveness because many of those goods are jointly produced with parts from all three countries. Thus, the best way to multiply our exports and accelerate growth would be to create a seamless market and construct a North American transportation and infrastructure grid.
All that's needed is "a shift of the mind's eye." Once we recognize the economies of scale that derive from a continental market, we'll look for ways to reduce the speed bumps that were introduced after 9/11. Once we understand the benefits of working together to address challenges such as jobs, immigration, drug trafficking, energy and the environment, then new opportunities will present themselves to create jobs, facilitate labour mobility, reduce drug trafficking, and balance our shared goals in energy security climate change.
The "North American idea" has to be big enough to inspire people in all three countries to forge a formidable region able to compete with a dynamic East Asia. Minds won't be changed by dealing with each neighbour, one issue at a time. To convince Americans that they shouldn't turn inward, they need to see both of their neighbours collaborating.
If Canada would join with Mexico to promote "Buy North American" instead of each country seeking an exemption, Canadians might do more than change the policy; we might awaken the U.S. to the continent's promise. Then the three countries would not only co-operate in making decisions on pipelines but in building high-speed trains connecting Montreal and Toronto with Boston and New York, and Vancouver with California and Mexico.
"Make no little plans," said Daniel Burnham, a Chicago architect. "They have no magic to stir man's blood." Think big about what three sovereign countries at different levels of development and power could forge if they shifted their minds and bought from all of North America.
Robert Pastor is a professor of international relations and director of the Center for North American Studies at American University in Washington. He is the author of The North American Idea: A Vision of a Continental Future .