The United States has provided many of its neighbors with economic opportunities and overall security. But former Canadian diplomat Paul Heinbecker argues that, as the world economy changes, the United States and its partners must adjust their relationships to meet a new global order.
Shifting global power realities are driving international recalculations by Washington and of Washington. This ferment presents increased economic and strategic opportunities and responsibilities for countries everywhere. Preserving good, beneficial relations with the United States while engaging the rest of the world more actively and effectively seems likely to become a widely shared goal. It will be easier said than done.
While Canadians have long lamented the fact that they live largely in Washington’s blind spot, many would nevertheless agree that it’s good to avoid being an object of American foreign policy. Better to prosper in the recesses of American consciousness as Washington deals with more pressing problems elsewhere than to live in the sometimes-searing heat and disorienting glare of American attention. And prosper Canada certainly has in the two centuries since it fought off the impulses of Jefferson, Jackson, Munro, Polk, and others towards conquest and Manifest Destiny, which in Canada’s case turned out to be neither manifest nor destiny – Mexico was not so lucky.
Canada is almost certainly the country that has benefited most from its economic relationship with the United States. Last year, trade between Canada and the United States amounted to almost $750 billion – approximately as much as all U.S.-Latin American trade combined. Canada’s investment in the United States is nearly $300 billion, and the United States is similarly heavily invested in its northern neighbor. As a result, Canadians boast very high per capita national wealth and a commensurate elevated standard of living. At the same time, such close relations with the United States sometimes means that Canada, like the countries of Latin America, suffers from America-generated problems beyond national control, not least of which are American demand for illegal drugs and American supply of illegal arms.
In Canada’s case, such problems, while real and distressing, are greatly overshadowed by the sheer scope of mutual economic benefits resulting from its bilateral relationship with the United States. Canada is America’s principal foreign supplier of oil, gas, electricity, and uranium. This delivers much-desired energy security to the United States and countrywide economic benefits to Canada. The two countries are so integrated economically that the bilateral relationship is sometimes labeled “intermestic” – international domestic. Domestic issues, such as the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline, tend to cause more friction between the two countries than international issues. At the same time, there is currently little appetite on either side of the 49th parallel for more formal integration, and still less for transforming NAFTA into a trilateral institution of governance.
Elsewhere in the Americas, the intensity of American interest is also dependent on how much a country’s problems impact domestic issues in the United States. As a consequence of immigration and the illegal drugs trade, Mexico has consistently topped the list of American intermestic worries, although the countries of Central America and Colombia have often been the uncomfortable subjects of keen American attention, as well. Generally speaking, the farther the countries in Latin America are from Washington, the more foreign and less domestic their relationships with the United States have been. In recent years, accusations have abounded that the United States has largely taken Latin America for granted – particularly Brazil, whose emergent significance as a regional and global presence the United States has been slow to recognize. The growing scandal of National Security Agency eavesdropping will complicate cooperation between the United States (and Canada) and its neighbors in the hemisphere.
In any case, America’s bandwidth for relations with its neighbors, already limited by the number of hours in a president’s day and the demands for attention the world generates, is arguably shrinking because of the distractions of dystopian American governance and the requirements of changing times and circumstance. Partly because of persistent deficits and budget cuts, the Obama administration seems bound not for a bigger military capability but for a smaller foreign policy, and a smaller (if still substantial) role in the world. The administration’s desire to “pivot to Asia,” its difficulty extracting itself from intractable Middle East conflicts, the growing threats of sectarian extremism and terrorism in the Middle East, and the unfinished business of free trade with Europe will all consume Washington’s political and policy capacity.
The coming of age (economically and strategically) of China, India, Korea, Indonesia, and Turkey, among others, will reward everyone’s attention. It is in these countries, as well as in Mexico and Brazil, that economic growth has been strongest in recent decades, and where the opportunities for others will be most pronounced in the years to come. America’s neighbors will need to connect with these markets if they wish to bring the full benefits of global economic growth to their people. At the same time, they will need to engage with Washington to promote a peaceful world order.
One consequence will be that Canada and the more capable countries of the Americas will increasingly need to step up and share the burdens of global governance. What remains to be seen is whether Washington is prepared to cede the corresponding decision-making rights that derive from the exercise of power, and whether others are ready to assume their shares of the responsibilities of leadership.