Sunday, January 07, 2007

Ever Closer Union

Before today I was completely unaware that there is a conspiracy theory to the effect that the US, Canada and Mexico are plotting to build a North American superstate. (No doubt some of AMLO's people think that this is why they "stole" "his" election from him...) But apparently, there is.

In fact, like most conspiracy theories, this one isn't completely groundless. There is a certain measure of circumstantial evidence that people are working behind the scenes toward a greater North American Superstate. Some reasons that the theorists seem to like to cite include the existence of a meeting between the Council on Foreign Relations (a US think tank), the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (a Canadian corporate advocacy group) and the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (whoever the hell they are), the proposed construction of a North American Superhighway and some talk in Canada of a currency union. As far as I can tell, having just learned about this, most of the proponents of this theory don't actually know that much about it. However, the arguments are cogently presented with plenty of documentary evidence to back them up here.

A short and informed debunking of the arguments can be found on this blog. It's this that I want to discuss.

The blog entry goes through all of the claims and demonstrates that the actual policies mentioned do not in any way cede US sovereignty to any kind of North American superstate. And as far as that goes, there's no denying it. NAFTA is implemented in such a way that it's not really even a treaty - more like a good faith agreement that the three nations take upon themselves. Unlike with the EU, NAFTA's review board is just that, a review board. It has no actual authority, and all three nations have, at some point or another, violated various aspects of the agreement with no consequences. The most prominent case under Chapter 11 (a provision that allows companies to sue the federal governments of each of the signatories for violations), in fact, was found against a Canadian company and in favor of the US government, which then countersued and won for $3million to cover the costs of the procedings. There has been some talk of a special border pass for Mexico and Canada - but considering that until recently most people were allowed to cross to and from at least Canada with only a driver's license, it's hard to see how such a thing threatens sovereignty. Furthermore, there's some bickering about a proposed opening of a Mexican customs agency in Kansas City - which would, of course, become "Mexican Territory." But so what? The last time I went to Germany, I went through US Customs in Ireland in a similar such bit of "sovereign US territory" in the Dublin airport. I certainly didn't feel as if I owned the place! Ditto Canada. There is a US Customs office in the Ottawa Airport too. I don't think Canada is in danger of collapsing for this. Indeed, every foreign embassy in Washington is technically "foreign territory." That doesn't make it a good idea to shut them down. Exports to Mexico are up by 150% since NAFTA was passed. Doncha think maybe it's a good idea to facilitate the process of shipping things there???

However, all that said, I don't think this theory is completely kooky. Certainly it's not going to happen by 2010, but I tend to be one of those who thinks it's inevitable that EU-like unions will start sprouting up in other places in future decades. Europe will remain well ahead of the pack on this for a long time, though, simply because they get along with each other better than most of the rest of us. There is, for example, also talk of union in Asia and Africa, which I think is wholly implausible for the time being. Even if it made economic sense to unify Asia (which it doesn't really, not yet), the cultural barriers (esp. as regards a certain former imperial power) are just too great. In our case in North America the main problem is that the US does now and always has significantly outperformed everyone else. Indeed, the US economy is worth more than the combined remaining economies of North and South America and then some. Full integration on those terms is just not practical, and on top of that the US is attached to its political institutions in the same way that the UK is. Being American means living in this system.

But give it time and who knows? For one thing, the border with Canada has always seemed fairly arbitrary. Canada is more or less a collection of leftovers from the American Revolution - those who didn't opt to join the club and the nation they built afterward. It's a fairly precarious union, as demonstrated by Quebec's frequent attempts to secede (or else negotiate special status) and the general handwringing over the true meaning of being Canadian in the English-speaking majority of the population. Canada, as far as anyone can tell, defines itself mostly in terms of being different from the US, which sort of begs the question... And, inevitably, there are some internet groups - such as the Republic of Cascadia Project - that advocate the secession of various provinces and states for the purpose of forming new trans-border nations. HA, ok, I'm joking. But there is a serious movement for Alberta to secede. The overall point being: since it's not too terribly clear (bad "research" aside) what, exactly, distinguishes the US from Canada culturally, there's probably less opposition to an amalgamation of sorts than people think. In particular, I think a currency union could come off. Now, granted, the Canadians aren't going to give up their loonies for bills with Dead Pre$ident$ on them without a fight. But Canada has frequently pegged its currency to ours in the recent past, and something like 70% of their economy depends on trade with the US. It's entirely conceivable that greenbacks could take over there at some point simply by fiat - by enough people being willing to use them, no treaties need be signed. But in any case, there aren't any insurmountable hurdles to a currency union on the Canadian side - and I doubt there really are on our side either (especially once it gets explained to our general public that Canada, as a commodity economy, is more financially stable than the US anyway, if not as prosperous).

Mexico is admittedly a tougher nut to crack. It still needs to modernize a bit before anyone can talk seriously about merging with it. But short of succumbing to the leftist tide "sweeping" South America (I personally think it turned a corner in 2006 and will start ebbing), modernization is inevitable.

I would just like to say that I have no problem in principle with a greater North American Union. I'm a US patriot for sure, but not in the sentimental sense people normally associate with America-lovers. I like this country because I think it's philosophically the soundest one on the planet. But that's nothing like saying it doesn't have its flaws, which of course it does. I will not be trading my US citizenship for any other that I can see - but again, not because I happened to be born here. So the problem with North American Union for me isn't that it would let French and Spanish speakers into the country in great numbers, or that it would screw with my sense of space, or necessitate moving the capitol, or take the eagle off my passport or what have you. It's more just that I don't completely trust the Canadians and Mexicans to stick to the ideals of the Founding Fathers, and giving up the US Constitution is something that I simply won't do. So the problem is really one of spreading US Libertarianism to Mexico and Canada. If that could be accomplished to my satisfaction, then far from opposing continental union, I would advocate for it. After all, with China currently the world's second-largest economy and growing by leaps and bounds, and with the euro replacing the dollar as the de facto gold standard in some places (especially in Europe - har har), we're in some danger of losing our status as premier economic superpower. Personally, I'd like for us to hold on to that. Since Congress doesn't seem willing to re-adopt lassiez faire, our best option will probably end up being to create a superstate - or at least a serious free trade zone (which probably amounts to the same thing in the end anyway).

Mexico and Canada, in fact, are far less hostile to Libertarianism culturally than is commonly claimed. Sure, if you look at things as a whole, both countries are significantly further left than the US. But focus on the details for a second and a different picture emerges. Mexico as a whole is fairly leftist, but the northern part of it is not at all, and there are pockets throughout the south that are not. Not surprisingly, these are by and large also the capable parts of the country - the ones that matter. We would be picking up a lot of baggage in terms of socialist-leaning voters with Mexico - but not so much in terms of actual administration. Not to mention, a lot of Mexicans have a stellar DIY work ethic. With the chafe comes a lot of wheat. As for Canada, the myth of Canadian socialism is largely a myth. Canada isn't too different from the states that border it. The Atlantic Provinces are New England's poor cousins. Ontario and Manitoba aren't anything that Wisconsin and Minnesota aren't. And likewise - Montana and Alberta are twin Libertarian stalwarts. British Columbia and Washington are largely similar, as are North Dakota and Saskatchewan. Aside from Quebec (which is a distinct "nation" anyway) and Newfoundland (where approximately no one lives), Canada just across the border lines up pretty well with sensibilities on the American side. We'd be buying expansions to some prominent blue states, true - but expansions to some red ones as well. Canada's "blueness" is anyway overstated. Policy in Canada seems to have a bit less to do with the general population's opinions than it does here. There's more of a "level of abstraction" between what goes on in government and what goes on in the polls there, if you will. Union with the US would partly dismantle that. Which isn't to say that Canadians are all libertarians in cadre uniforms, because they aren't. Canada is certainly further left than the US. But I think not to the extreme that it's commonly painted out (especially by the Liberal Party, which has a definite stake in this image) to be. The political realignments accompanying North American Union would probably not be as abrupt a lurch to the left as a lot of people imagine they would be.

But alright - this is all pipe dream. I know next to nothing about Mexican politics and national constitution, but I know enough about how the US works to know that our system makes it difficult for us to join political unions of this kind. We're good at assimilating others, not so good at adapting ourselves (which is how it should be). There are a million and one legal and constitutional barriers to signing the US on to any political union. Canada, as it happens, can easily adapt and join things, though, so a more plausible scenario would have Canada dissolving and then bits of it slowly joining the US proper. But of course, the most believable scenario for a breakup of Canada starts with Quebec leaving (Newfoundland might also want to leave, but no one would care), and Quebec seems unlikely to secede from Canada only to turn around and apply for admission to the US. Ditto Alberta. It might try to leave if Quebec left, but the most likely outcome is that it would be seen as impractical to leave Canada just to turn around and join another federal union - and there's little sense in an independent nation of 3million called "Alberta."

There is a somewhat interesting article in the Toronto Star hypothesizing it the other way around, though. The idea here is that northern "blue states" in the US would leave the Union to get away from the South and join Canada proper. Canada, as it turns out, swings both ways. It would be fairly uncomplicated for a US state to apply for admission to the Canadian Federation - much more complicated (if not completely impossible) for said state to leave the US. But OK, assuming a state could wrestle free of the US, it wouldn't be too hard for it to join Canada, assuming it was welcome. However, I think this author has it backward all the same. First of all, he admits that the Quebec secession issue would have to be completely resolved first, and that's simply not very likely. Whatever complaints the North has about the South (and they are legion), the South is no longer trying to leave. Quebec is. It should be obvious to anyone that the more plausible scenario is that Quebec causes real trouble than that the US North starts seriously taking about abandoning the South! Even if they did, it's far from clear that they would opt to join Canada. One thing that unites the US is supreme confidence in the institutional framework that governs the land. I would say that the North would be more likely to declare itself the "true" America than to go knocking at Canada's door. More likely than not, the citizens of New York, New Jersey, Massachussetts et el would expect Canadian provinces to want to join them. And indeed why not? The northern states as a whole comprise a lot more people than the whole of Canada (New York City alone is over a third the size of Canada), and they have a strong historical continuity with the Revolution besides. And the US North is certainly not in any kind of economic need - which Atlantic Canada largely is. No, even if the US suffered a North-South split (not even remotely in the works in my opinion), I would think it a lot more likely that Canada - or at least parts of it - would apply for admission to this "newer, bluer" US than the other way around. (As an aside, I'm frequently amused by the foreign tendency to exaggerate North-South differences and tensions in the US even more than we do! I blame this on Hollywood. Foreigners, not being "from here," swallow the bullshit stereotypes Hollywood peddles about the South even more than Yankees do.)

In short, it doesn't seem very likely that political union on North America would happen any time soon. Inertia is a bitch, and there is currently no pressure on anyone to unite into a North American Superstate strong enough to overcome it. As for a conspiracy - I suspect that there are enough high-profile, intelligent people in the business community who actively want and work for union to give the theorists something to write about for the foreseeable future. But that is the great weakness of conspiracy theorists: they focus on the details they want to see without looking at the larger picture. In the larger picture, however many boardroom meetings of business leaders and politicians discussing union may go on in semi-secret for the theorists to dig up, there are ten times as many people who never think the thought at all - and that's what counts. It definitely can't happen by 2010; it probably can't even happen in my lifetime. At best, we'll see serious movement in that direction by the time we hit the nursing home, but I don't expect to be a citizen of any superstate before I die. Africa and Asia will be even further behind. Globalization is a trend more than a present reality. There's plenty of time left to be American.

I don't want to downplay the importance of Quebec leaving Canada, by the way. That's an issue that we in the States should pay a bit more attention to. Quebec secession would indeed deal a critical blow to Canada, and the nation might well not survive it. I'd stack the odds for Canada living on, but only by just over half. The danger isn't so much that Quebec would turn around and join the US; it wouldn't. But with Quebec gone, there would be a sharp shift in center of power from the east to the west in Canada, and the West has increasingly less patience with the East. Canada would have to be in some sense "renegotiated" if Quebec left, and it's not unlikely that such negotiations would break down and result in a split in the rest of the country as well. Not a foregone conclusion, mind you, but not unthinkable by any means. Joining with Canada, or at least parts of it, after such a breakup would be a very real possibility.

And it's partly in this sense that I said earlier that I don't think these theories are as kooky as a lot of people make them out to be. Are people currently negotiating the US, Canada and Mexico away? Almost certainly. Do they and their plans really matter - really have the power to change things? Almost certainly NOT. But are Canada and the US really that distinct? See, there's the rub. We're not. And politically, Canada is probably a bit less stable than is generally believed. I'm not saying that Union is going to happen (I think I've made clear that I believe it is inevitable, but not for some time, and only as part of a global trend already well underway), I'm just saying that there are timebombs that could push it forward. Is Union in the near future implausible? Absolutely. But it's also nothing like "kooky."


At 5:53 PM, Blogger Alexander said...

The link to the Cascadian group ( you have posted is a joke group... there are real organizations and serious websites looking into re-uniting Cascadia (the Old Oregon Country before expansionist president Polk partitioned Oregon and then annexed part of it into the US).

Organizations such as the Cascadia Mayors Council seek to create a more bioregional approach in all the major cities and communities withi Cascadia

At 6:51 PM, Blogger Joshua said...

Oops! I assumed the whole movement was a joke based on that site. Thanks for the correction.


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