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Former prime minister Brian Mulroney meets with The Globe and Mail’s editorial board on Oct. 3, 2012.

FRED LUM/The Globe and Mail

No Canadian figure has been more central to trade liberalization than Brian Mulroney. As prime minister from 1984 to 1993, he negotiated both the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and the North American Free Trade Agreement. Today, 20 years after NAFTA came into force, trade volume among the three countries has more than tripled, while Canada's trade with Mexico has increased more than eightfold. Yet irritants remain, including border delays and creeping U.S. protectionism.

Do you get tired of being asked about NAFTA after all this time?
Well, like any former prime minister, I'm happy to talk about the past, especially about that part of the past that may have been successful. And NAFTA has been a tremendous success for all three partners.

Is there anything the agreement got wrong?
I wouldn't say there is something the agreement got wrong, but there is something that did not occur. NAFTA, unfortunately, did not serve as the template for a free trade agreement of the Americas. And that is—I won't say a disappointment, because nothing was guaranteed. But I had hoped that more progress would be made.

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So why didn't it happen?
It didn't happen for two main reasons. First was the election in Latin America of some governments, like Venezuela under Chávez, that were openly hostile to the United States. The second, more importantly, was 9/11. It caused the U.S. to bring about draconian changes in its attitudes toward trade in goods, services and people, together with its obvious need to envelop all of this in national security.

What more could have been done to counter that after 9/11?
Well, we all remember the human reactions to what happened in New York City on that beautiful morning. Our world was turned upside down. It's extremely ironic, when you step back and look at it, that a German can fly to London and walk downtown uninhibited, and he's flying in from a country that waged two world wars. Yet I, as a former prime minister of Canada, get on a plane to go 55 minutes from Montreal to New York City, and I have to be interrogated, investigated and practically undressed to get across the border. So that's the price we've been paying ever since 9/11. Subsequent Canadian governments, particularly the Harper government, have invested billions of dollars and an enormous amount of work in arresting the tendency toward the thickening of the border, but there's been no response from the other side.

What's your assessment of U.S.—what's the word for it?—enthusiasm for the relationship with Canada and Mexico?
I think the enthusiasm for the relationship is well under control.

Under control, meaning?
Meaning it's there in a very limited way. We do not appear to be a priority for them. And Mexico, for the average American legislator, conjures up images of violence and illegal immigration and drug trades. Those are the brutal realities of daily politics. And so we're going to have to fight to get the changes we want.

Is Canada doing enough to get back on Washington's agenda?
I know that Prime Minister Harper has worked very hard at the relationship. But it takes two to tango. I was fortunate that I dealt with people like Reagan, Bush and Clinton. I was able to get their attention and keep it for the big deals—the Canada-U.S. FTA, NAFTA, the Acid Rain Treaty, the Arctic Sovereignty Treaty—because the president had decided for his own reasons to give Canada priority treatment. Today, I see enormous efforts made by the Canadians, but I'm not sure I see the full degree of reciprocity to which Prime Minister Harper and his colleagues are entitled.

Some are talking about the need for "NAFTA 2.0." Good idea?
We have NAFTA. We have the framework we need. We've all benefited, but principally Mexico. I've read projections that, by the year 2050, it will have the fifth-largest economy in the world. They are in the process of showing what could be done by a free trade agreement for the Americas, because NAFTA was an agreement—for the first time—between two G7 countries and a developing nation. So I think NAFTA's profile should almost be that of a battering ram, knocking down the attitudinal barriers that have existed for hundreds of years in Latin America. The salvation for Latin America, and for us all, comes in greater trading alliances.

Any thoughts on the recent Canada-EU Trade Agreement?
Well, look, the CETA deal is a very good one for Canada. But a legitimate question is, could we have done a better deal if we had negotiated with the Europeans as NAFTA?

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Was a unified North American trading bloc part of your vision?
Yes, it was. And President Bush shared that vision. And would it still be realistic that some day the world will look at us as part of a free trade area of the Americas, with that vast power at our disposal? Why not? There's no reason that brighter and younger people can't bring this about. But someone's got to spend the political capital. If leaders decide to exercise political will on visionary projects, they might suffer unpopularity, but years after they leave, their vision will be recognized by their successors and their countries.

Is that how you look back on your legacy?
I look back on everyone's legacy the same way—Reagan, Thatcher, myself. I've noticed that those who are timid and timorous, who choose not to take risks but conduct themselves only in ways that make them popular, have very meagre legacies for historians to nibble on.

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