We Need to Rethink, Not Rearm NAFTA

U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will meet in Washington today amid calls in the United States for tougher security on the northern border. Suggestions in the Senate Homeland Security Committee that the 49th parallel is an unruly ‘no man’s land’ threatening the American people, and that Canadians should need visas to enter the United States prompted the meeting.

Experts expect the two leaders to announce today a “new” border partnership to ease the flow of goods and people across the border by harmonizing security, immigration and refugee, surveillance and possibly defense policy across the continent. There’s nothing new about this plan. It’s the regurgitation of the defunct Bush-led Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP)without the Mexican “amigo,” previously played by Mexican President Vicente Fox. As the Canadian business lobby suggested to Obama, it only “takes two to tango.”

Ten years ago, business lobbies of the three countries claimed the only way to keep goods, services, and investment flowing across borders in the post-9/11 security climate was through “deep integration,” or the arming of NAFTA. Corporate North America entered into a pact with governments to endorse transnational military exercises and surveillance systems, no-fly lists, and other ineffective but intrusive security measures. In return , promises were made for open borders, a common and laxer regulatory environment, and a dominant role for big business in the creation of a North American economic policy that went beyond the already exhausted NAFTA.

The plan took many forms, from the 2001 and 2002 Smart Border Declarations with Canada and Mexico, a 2005 trilateral report from the Council on Foreign Relations on “Building a North American Community,” and the now reviled SPP, which emerged in Waco, Texas that same year. By 2006, a hand-picked group of 30 CEOs was driving integration as the North American Competitiveness Council — the only non-governmental advisory group for the process.

The plan was corporatist, its successes modest, and its failures abundant. No one can legitimately claim it has made North America safer. Since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006, the Washington-led war on drugs has left more than 34,000 dead in Mexico. Not only does the United States. arm the Mexican military with taxpayers’ money, but criminals enjoy a continuous supply of high caliber guns given the laxity of U.S. laws and the large supply close to the border. In addition, NAFTA’s prohibition on capital controls allows dirty money to flow both ways without effective restrictions.

In Canada, the thought of harmonized security and border policy will bring to mind the experience of Maher Arar. A Canadian citizen, Mr. Arar was deported from New York to Syria based on RCMP intelligence shared without filters with the Department of Homeland Security. He was imprisoned and tortured for a year before being let go without charge. Canadian airlines continue to use U.S. no-fly lists to block innocent Canadians from boarding planes that travel through U.S. airspace en route to non-U.S. destinations.

The SPP goal of enhanced competitiveness and “prosperity” has also failed to materialize. Cheap U.S. corn exports into Mexico are blamed in numerous studies for the loss of millions of farm jobs. Manufacturing jobs have been leaving Mexico for Asia, where salaries are much lower, for several years. Mexico’s exports are from transnational industries, mainly the automobile sector, but not of the weakened national industry.

Canada has also lost manufacturing jobs as its economy becomes increasingly linked to raw resource exports. What manufacturing or other high-value industry still exists is increasingly U.S.- or foreign-owned. Even in the resource sector, extraction and export is carried out by private firms based on the profit motive only. Almost all of the heavy crude from Alberta’s tar sands goes to the U.S. for refining. Part of the SPP vision has been to consider energy, raw materials, and even water as part of a “North American” pool at the disposal of the free market, not something that must be preserved and protected for future generations.

Like many Canadians and Mexicans, we were relieved when President Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to renegotiate NAFTA to make it work for working families. “Starting my first year in office, I will convene annual meetings with Mr. Calderón and the prime minister of Canada. Unlike similar summits under President Bush, these will be conducted with a level of transparency that represents the close ties among our three countries,” he said. “We will seek the active and open involvement of citizens, labor, the private sector and non-governmental organizations in setting the agenda and making progress”.

We still believe openness and involvement is what it’s needed. But we worry that Obama and Harper will use today’s meeting to endorse a myopic economic and security vision for North America that takes us further away from a just and sustainable future. At the very least, the public should be informed promptly and in detail of the decisions taken, and to have a say in whether or not a “security perimeter” is in anyone’s interests.

Manuel Pérez-Rocha is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C. Stuart Trew is a trade campaigner with the Council of Canadians in Toronto.