Who Controls North America?

Today, even the U.S. government is just one of many players

Few tasks are as complex and problematic as the assessment of how one or several states construct or constrain the power of another state. In fact, a complete subfield of study in political science has been devoted to this very issue. The titanic endeavour undertaken by Stephen Clarkson and Matto Mildenberger in Dependent America? How Canada and Mexico Construct U.S. Power is thus admirable, particularly if one considers that most analyses of North America—including Uncle Sam and Us: Globalization, Neoconservatism and the Canadian State and Does North America Exist? Governing the Continent after NAFTA and 9/11, Clarkson’s first two books of the trilogy that encompasses this last volume—are obsessively concerned with the opposite question of how the United States wields power over its much smaller neighbours.

The study of the United States as an object has produced a wealth of new and old data that clearly document the fact that Canada and Mexico are “by far the largest of the United States’ external sources of its material power.” Clarkson and Mildenberger, for instance, estimate that through the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and the North American Free Trade Agreement, Canada and Mexico have raised the U.S. gross domestic product by between 2 percent and 3 percent, which translates into an increase of about $1,000 in the average American annual income. They also show that, through ensured access to Canadian and Mexican markets, the United States made economies of scale and thus improved the productivity of its transnational corporations, became more attractive to foreign direct investment from abroad (an eightfold increase since 1992) and threatened to create Fortress North America, a credible menace that pushed the European Union back to the negotiating table in order to complete the Uruguay Round of General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. America’s two neighbours also had an important role in spreading, strengthening and legitimizing a network of neoconservative trade and investment norms throughout the western hemisphere and the world.

While Canada is a source of capital for the United States (accounting for 10 percent of total foreign direct investment in the U.S. for 2009), the authors of Dependent America argue that Mexico is a key source of labour. It provides migrants who contribute not only to the competitiveness of the U.S. economy but also to a healthy U.S. rate of population growth, the rejuvenation of an aging U.S. workforce and the reduction of the per capita cost of providing public goods. Canadian documented and undocumented migration to the United States pales in comparison with that originating in Mexico, although historically it has made a significant contribution with a total of 4.7 million documented Canadians migrating to its southern neighbour between 1820 and 2009. Canadian migrants also tend to be more skilled than those coming from Mexico, but Mexicans account for a high proportion of the U.S. labour force (currently about 30 percent of the foreign-born workers in the United States), particularly filling low-wage jobs that are often unattractive to the U.S.-born labour force, notably in the service industries that are growing as the United States moves from its industrial restructuring to a knowledge-based economy. The U.S. economy’s dependence on migrant labour is also evident in industries where low-wage migrants play key subsidiary roles, with entire production processes at risk of becoming “uncompetitive without having what one might call the Mexican labour subsidy at their base.”

Clarkson and Mildenberger also make the case that, in a context of global instability, abundant Canadian and Mexican natural resources, particularly petroleum, have contributed to empowering their common neighbour. “By 2010, Canadian and Mexican exports accounted for over 32 per cent of US [oil] imports,” making them the largest foreign suppliers of crude oil and petroleum products to the United States. Moreover, the authors point out that these two countries are the most reliable energy providers, as “three-fifths of the top ten oil exporters to the United States rank among the world’s most corrupt countries.”

There is more. Clarkson and Mildenberger contend that, by virtue of their geographical contiguity, Canada and Mexico represent simultaneously America’s most essential allies and its chief security threats. From Ottawa’s merging of its air power under the U.S.-controlled North American Aerospace Defense Command and Mexico’s less overt support to the U.S. security agenda during the Cold War years, to the harmonization of border security practices and intelligence policies aimed at addressing the U.S. security needs that emerged in the post-9/11 world, Canada and Mexico have contributed to the effective expansion of the U.S. security perimeter. Ottawa and Mexico City have also cooperated with Washington in its war on drugs, in spite of “Mexico’s greater and Canada’s lesser roles as producers and conduits of narcotics for the enormous American drug market,” which undermine U.S. social power. Canada and Mexico have exhibited this capacity to constrain American power, the authors contend, in at least three other areas: the nationalistic energy policies of Canada in the 1970s and Mexico since the 1930s; the two countries’ support for the establishment of the International Criminal Court, which the U.S. adamantly opposed; and their undermining of the U.S. embargo on Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

While bluntly demonstrating through nine chapters that the United States derives a “considerable part of its economic wealth, security, and global efficacy” from its relationship with Canada and Mexico, Clarkson and Mildenberger then reach the somewhat disappointing and very traditional conclusion that the United States has successfully “disabled these two neighbours’ political capacity to turn its material dependency against it.” They argue that “NAFTA and CUFTA [were] a masterstroke of US agency” that constitutionalized the norms that favour the economic interests of the United States and constrain Canada’s and Mexico’s autonomy, while leaving the former free either to bargain “in a zero-sum mercantilist mode, pressing for its companies’ greater access to the periphery’s market while resisting concessions that would expand opportunities for the periphery’s TNCs in its own market” or unilaterally introduce protectionist policies, such as Obama’s “Buy American” act. Similarly, in spite of its dependence on its continental periphery as a source of energy, the United States successfully managed, via partnerships with provincial governments and business elites in Canada, to enshrine in the CUFTA its uninterrupted access to Canadian energy resources. In Mexico, and in spite of existing constitutional restrictions there, the United States has “even made progress in opening up the Mexican energy system to its private sector’s participation.” In sum, no matter how much Canada and Mexico construct or constrain U.S. power and make their common neighbour dependent on them for its security or economic well-being, the stark asymmetry of power between the United States and its two North American partners will remain prevalent and self-evident.

The authors conclude their long North American analytical journey by noting that Washington’s behaviour toward its neighbours demonstrates neither “deference nor concern” about those countries’ continuing to supply the assets it needs. They offer a double explanation for this paradox. On the one hand, the United States is armed with a self-confident political culture developed since its revolutionary war, on the basis of which “American citizens and politicians have seen themselves unquestionably as agents in the world, not as objects—as masters, not servants.” On the other hand, its two neighbours “constantly demonstrate dependent-country comportment towards the United States. Mexican and Canadian politicians may complain about US behaviour and become angry at American politicians, but they never try to flex their economic or security muscle to impose their will on Uncle Sam.” Digging a little deeper, the authors assert that Canada’s and Mexico’s room to manoeuvre is pretty well limited by policy frameworks that the Americans have put into place, in particular due to the implementation of NAFTA. “In recognizing how much agency Washington exerts in boosting Canada’s and Mexico’s constructive role and containing their potential to constrain it, we can understand why its neighbours so consistently punch below their weight in their own region.”

Clarkson and Mildenberger’s circular explanation limits the innovative aspects of their analysis, which promised to show how Canada and Mexico constructed or constrained U.S. power. The circularity of the argument is particularly evident regarding transnational issues, such as migration, drug trafficking or economic integration, where the authors face the problem of demonstrating that the United States is free to act and always wins. For instance, while Mexican labour migration helps build and sustain U.S. power, Clarkson and Mildenberger say that a good example of America’s freedom from policy dependence on its borders is “Mexico’s inability to leverage its emigrants’ centrality to the US economy into political influence.” This perspective takes no account of the deep domestic polarization surrounding the migration debate in the United States that prevents not only Mexico but also the U.S. government from exerting its power in the desired direction. Powerful sectors of American society and political groups vehemently oppose both the legalization of undocumented workers and migration in general, based on their conviction that those migrants undermine U.S. power. These domestic constraints explain the George W. Bush administration’s inability to reform the immigration system and also to stop the flow of undocumented migrants that crossed the U.S. border. Moreover, these political hurdles pushed Barack Obama—who made the Latino community an electoral promise to pass comprehensive immigration reform—to become the U.S. president with the highest record ever of deported undocumented migrants. In addition, the power balance for Mexico is not entirely negative. While compromising its own ability to profit from its own demographic bonus, the emigration of Mexican workers also represents remittances that those worker send back home, thereby reducing pressure on the Mexican government to generate the millions of jobs that would otherwise be demanded by those workers who emigrate.

Drug trafficking represents another example of the limitations of Clarkson and Mildenberger’s argument. They argue that the U.S. government has found itself forced to strengthen the Mexican government with funds for technology and training to fight the drug cartels. But this does not mean that the United States is imposing policy frameworks on Mexico; rather, it means that both governments have decided to use their power jointly to face their common enemies who aim at expanding the market for narcotics. Given the myriad of actors in the game—arms sellers, drug traffickers, drug consumers, financial intermediaries, etc.—the final outcome is not at all clear in terms of material power for the United States or Mexico.

Also puzzling is Clarkson and Mildenberger’s view of economic integration. They see NAFTA as a means for the United States to impose its values and norms over its two smaller partners. This is based on their assumption that any U.S. policy dependence due to NAFTA is negated by “Canada’s and Mexico’s even greater vulnerability to the United States’ retaliation.” They wrongly consider the willingness of American lawmakers to move away from economic integration altogether as a sign of U.S. policy independence from its continental periphery. In fact, the thickening of U.S. borders in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Obama administration’s post-crisis Buy American stimulus package, which caused “some US [transnational corporations] to break their production chains, replacing Mexican- and Canadian-sourced inputs with purchases from higher-cost American producers,” affects U.S. economic interests and power as much as it does those of Mexico and Canada.

Rather than a dependent America or an independent America, all these transnational cases reveal the existence of a “myopic North America,” where the governments of the three countries seem to be losing every opportunity to profit from a collective action that could help them either address common problems or exploit the material power they have jointly constructed. Transnational issues in North America are central because, in spite of the fragmenting effects of the 9/11 border security measures, levels of economic and social integration are higher than those registered even in Europe. As such, the power relations and interests of the three North American countries are so intertwined that they render the concept of power as a material or relational attribute at the state level, which the authors of Dependent America? chose to use, an ineffective analytical tool. The complex interdependence approach means, as Clarkson and Mildenberger state, not only that multiple channels of contact between regimes over a very broad range of issues reduce the importance of military force, but also that power is much more relative and issue-area specific and that the state (represented in this case by Washington, Ottawa and Mexico City) is just another actor in the complex political chessboard of the entire continent.

A more accurate understanding of North America thus requires moving away from the notion of the state as unified-rational actor and from the zero-sum game that characterizes Clarkson and Mildenberger’s analysis, where the United States always wins. A different view, for example the one developed by Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye in After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy, could help produce a policy action roadmap where Ottawa and Mexico City punch at their right weight in Washington and turn myopic North America into a vibrant region where the governments of the three countries coordinate their policies and take advantage of their collective power and their common and shared interests.