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Canada’s New Government: An Opportunity to Advance North America?

November 6, 2015 by Daniel W. Fisk

As the new government of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party prepared to assume its parliamentary majority, Canadians have been rightly focused on reviving the sluggish economy.  Going foward, the U.S.' attention will be on Canada’s participation in the effort against ISIS and, closer to home, in the production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. 

Having signaled his interest in Canada’s international re-engagement on what the Prime Minister calls “the environmental file,” it remains an open question how the new government will prioritize its agenda.

In its election platform, the Liberals acknowledged the importance of its North American relationships, pledging to “renew and repair” relations with the United States and Mexico.  Specifically, a Trudeau government will resume the North American leaders’ summit, pursue development of “a continent-wide clean energy and environment agreement,” promote a modernized and streamlined border crossing infrastructure, and manage the U.S. relationship through a Cabinet committee. 

This expression of new attention on the North American relationship is welcome.  Since 2010, the North American relationship has been impacted by the domestic politics in each country.  This includes the U.S. process reviewing the Keystone XL pipeline application by Trans-Canada and Canada’s implementation of heightened visa requirements for Mexicans.  Together with long-standing bureaucratic reluctance to advance regulatory cooperation and transparency by all three countries, it has been difficult to see much evidence of a continental agenda in any of the three capitals.

Canadian-U.S. relations are a function of geography and, today, economics.  They are also impacted by the relationship between the Prime Minister and the President.  It is perceived that the leader relationship is a consequence of generally shared philosophies more than individual personalities.  From the positive interaction between Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and President Franklin Roosevelt to the Brian Mulroney-Ronald Reagan friendship – and the differences in the policy views between Pierre Trudeau and Reagan and, later between Jean Chretien and George W. Bush -- ideological compatibility is understood to drive the closeness of the bilateral agenda. 

This dynamic could be used to explain the impasse during the Stephen Harper-Barack Obama era and appears to offer a basis for optimism in the President Obama-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau interregnum. 

While history lends credence to elements of this compatibility element, it is easy to overstate.  For Canada, historian Robert Bothwell has noted that free trade with the United States had been “an objective for virtually every Canadian prime minister since the abrogation of the [U.S.-United Kingdom] reciprocity treaty in 1866,” which ended duty free access to the U.S. market for raw materials and agricultural products from Canada. 

Although the 1987 Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement is attributed to the shared ideological vision of Mulroney and Reagan, it was a matter more of Reagan’s vision of a “North American Accord” and Canada’s need to avoid economic isolation and stem U.S. protectionism.  And it gave Mulroney and his Progressive Conservative Party the momentum to ride to re-election.

Since that time, the depth and breadth of the relationship – with each country being the number one trading partner of the other – has changed the dynamic. 

Canada’s relationship with Mexico, historically less a consequence of leadership personalities, took a new course since the approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993.  The positive Mulroney-George H.W. Bush, and then Mulroney-Bill Clinton, relationship, as well as the vision of Mexican president Carlos Salinas, were factors in bringing this historic agreement to a successful conclusion.

This does not discount the impetus Mexico’s general interest in pursuing more open trade with the United States or expanding opportunities with Canada.  With NAFTA in place, Canada and Mexico are closer diplomatically and more economically integrated than ever before; however, in many areas they remain distant neighbors, with the larger preoccupation remaining their respective relationship with the United States.

The personal interactions of Mr. Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto can contribute to any momentum that is generated by a new Canadian government’s interest in the North American agenda.  In Mexico’s case, the opportunities for North American economic integration will be on a more solid foundation with full implementation of reforms President Peña Nieto has overseen in the energy and telecom sectors.

At the mid-term of his presidency, Peña Nieto must deal with frustrations over the pace of economic growth – projected at 2.5 percent for 2015 – and questions about governmental transparency and accountability, including persistent corruption allegations.  Mexico can use a revitalized North American process to bolster his earlier reforms and help buffet the country from the continued slump in commodity prices.  Advancing North American economic integration will not be a short-term panacea for Mexico; as it has been since NAFTA, though, it continues to contribute to the betterment of Mexican institutions and the lives of individual Mexicans.

Since 1993, elections and changes of government in all three countries have presented the North American policy agenda with challenges and opportunities.  This is no less the situation as Mr. Trudeau and his Liberal government take the reins in Ottawa.  Scheduling a North American Leaders’ Summit will be an early signal of the new government’s intent.  Now is a time to move forward for the benefit of the citizens of all three countries.

 

 


Author

Daniel W. Fisk
Daniel W. Fisk

Daniel W. Fisk, a Bush Institute Fellow, is the Chief Operations Officer of the International Republican institute (IRI), a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting democratic principles, independent civil society, and respect for human rights.  Fisk formerly served in various positions in the U.S. Government, including as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush Administration.  He also has served in the State and Defense Departments, and on the staffs of the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees.  

 Fisk holds a juris doctor and a master’s degree in government from Georgetown University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tulsa.

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