Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

What Happened to the North American Idea?

Reading Time: 2 minutesNot much has changed since NAFTA launched in 1994.
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Two decades ago, the leaders of Canada, Mexico and the United States forged an agreement that transformed North America from just a geographical expression to the world’s most formidable economic entity. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) eliminated most of the trade and investment barriers that had segmented the continent. Within a decade, trade among the three countries tripled and foreign direct investment (FDI) quintupled. By 2001, the three nations of North America accounted for 36 percent of the world product—up from 30 percent in 1994. And while many economists have waxed enthusiastic about the growing power of Brazil, U.S. trade with Mexico today is more than six times larger than its trade with Brazil.

Unfortunately, since 2001 regional cooperation has stagnated. NAFTA, designed to expand trade and investment, has proven too limited in addressing the current issues facing the three countries. The time has come for the leaders of North America to recommit to regional integration if they want to effectively address the policy issues facing the region.

For example, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, NAFTA can play a major role in job creation. A revamped agreement can potentially double exports and allow North America to once again compete with integrated markets in Asia and Europe.

Beyond jobs, enhanced coordination and information sharing among NAFTA partners will allow for better control of immigration and the flow of illicit drugs across our borders. Finally, strengthening ties will begin to close the development gap between Mexico and its two neighbors, fortifying the economic and political bloc.

The Rise and Fall of North America

Though NAFTA has long faded from the headlines, the agreement’s first years showed much promise. When the North American market was created in 1992, the impact was almost immediate.

Contrary to the claim by U.S. presidential candidate Ross Perot that American jobs would be “sucked” into Mexico, the dramatic increase in North American trade coincided with the largest wave of job creation in U.S. history. Between 1992 and 2000, roughly 22 million jobs were added in the U.S., while trade with and FDI in Canada and Mexico grew more than 17 percent each year.

The combination of expanded trade and investment meant that the three countries were actually making products together rather than just trading them. By combining U.S. capital and technology with Mexico’s cheaper labor and Canada’s abundant resources, the enlarged North American market experienced rapid growth, while Europe stagnated. From the onset of the U.S.-Canadian Free Trade Agreement in 1988 to 2001, trade among Mexico, Canada and the U.S., as a percentage of their trade with the world, leapt from 36 percent to 46 percent.

The decline of the integration idea could be dated to the spring of 2001, when Presidents Vicente Fox of Mexico and George W. Bush of the U.S. met Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in Québec. Fox and his Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda arrived with a suitcase filled with proposals, such as a North American Commission, a “cohesion” fund to reduce the development gap, a customs union and an immigration agreement.

But Chrétien was not interested in including Mexico in Canada’s talks with the U.S., and Bush rejected any new multilateral institution or fund. The opportunity for progress was lost.

The share of trade among the three countries as a percentage of their trade with the rest of the world dropped from 46 percent in 2001 to 40 percent in 2009—almost to pre-NAFTA levels. The average annual growth of trade among the three countries declined by two-thirds, while growth of foreign direct investment decreased by one-half…

Tags: Free Trade, NAFTA, Robert A. Pastor
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