by Axel Cabrera *
It’s been a year since the Covid-19 pandemic hit North America in full force. The disruptive force of a deadly virus transformed the lives of millions and unveiled –or at least made more evident– that the relations between Mexico, the United States and Canada, whether bilateral or trilateral, are dichotomic: they rapidly oscillate between cooperation and confrontation.
North American economic integration began with NAFTA in the early 1990s and its success has been bittersweet. Recently, integration was revamped with the new USMCA trade deal which has a “less free/more controlled” approach to trade than the original. The NAFTA region is powerful and influential, accounting for 6 percent of world’s population but 25 percent of global GDP. It is no overstatement to say that the region sparked globalization as it is understood today; the deal inspired policy-makers around the world to create similar mechanisms for greater exchange.
The North American relationship has been on auto-pilot for years now. In July 2020, however, it suffered a short circuit when the Mexican and American presidents “celebrated” the USMCA’s entry into force despite the notorious absence of Canada’s prime minister, who was invited last minute. Local politicking from Mexico City and Washington eroded whatever was left of the Three Amigos narrative, at a time when close collaboration was desperately needed.
This diplomatic blunder is more acute when taking into account that the only way for the three-country bloc to work efficiently is to balance multiple economic, political and social considerations. In other words, trade did create wealthier, more interconnected economies, but the human factor, immeasurable by nature, was absent from the conversation. It’s no surprise then that the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated the urgency of a renewed North American project that includes the views, opinions and expertise of non-governmental actors.
According to some experts, the relationships of the U.S. with its northern and southern neighbors are considered “intermestic”. That means a relationship where domestic and international policies are closely interconnected. One of the most dramatic examples of the peculiarity of these interrelations is migration. Despite the openness in the discourse, Mexico has effectively closed its borders to migrants after tacitly agreeing with the Trump administration’s implementation of the Migrants Protection Protocols (MPP). Today, more than 68,000 migrants are still stranded on Mexican soil as they await to seek asylum in the U.S.. This is a long process that —despite the great efforts and coordination of the new Biden Administration— might take years amid an overwhelmed system and health crisis.
Twelve months into a pandemic, North America has lost almost 740,000 lives (71 percent of them happening in the U.S., 26 percent in Mexico, and 3 percent in Canada). This is a significant number could have been lower had there been close coordination between the three capitals. Instead, the leaders’ narrative varied widely. In Mexico, the president said that the pandemic “fitted like a glove” for carrying his projects. Meanwhile in the US, former president Trump argued he had the pandemic “totally under control”.
While politics and personal interests inhibited a coordinated North American response, the health crisis demonstrated that collaboration between the public, private and social sectors is the only way forward to overcome this global issue. Without multiple public-private partnerships, it’s unlikely that a vaccine would have been made available in less than a year. Likewise, without the countless hours of work from civil organizations and media outlets, the world would be in a spiral of disinformation with untold consequences.
Paradoxically, the pandemic’s side effects will likely benefit the future of North America, thanks to the commitment of experts, scholars and business people with great understanding of the three bilateral relationships, as well as the trilateral one. The pandemic lockdowns sped up the transition to remote work, the frequency of meetings between multi-stakeholder groups has increased, creating space for interesting policy proposals not only from national capitals, but from border states and provinces in the three countries.
A renewed North American roadmap will need to have a multi-phase approach, where policy is adapted to the post-pandemic needs. For instance, instead of policing and prosecuting migrants in its southern border, Mexico should understand that is has become a destination country and, therefore, should make adjustments to its immigration system. Moreover, since remote work is the present and the future of labor, the country should seize the opportunity to attract also high-skilled workers, who will spur even more diversity and create wealth in the region they settle in. Canada and the U.S. have a great deal of experience on this matter, since immigrants have greatly benefited their local communities and economies thanks to innovation.
Another side effect of Covid-19 has been the disruption of the supply chains –which were already struggling due to trade conflict between the U.S. and China. In the new normal, the concepts of reshoring and nearshoring are becoming common. Mexico should take part in this process to attract more foreign direct investment, which will benefit the whole North American region and its citizens. Moreover, amidst the Fourth Industrial Revolution, there is a great opportunity to create binational and trinational networks of professionals in areas such as technology and entrepreneurship.
The political landscape in North America changed for good in 2021. The pandemic has taught leaders countless valuable lessons, one of them being that they need to seek out and lean on expertise from private, social and academic sectors, not just in their own countries but throughout the region.
* Axel Cabrera is a board member of the Young Professionals Program at COMEXI (the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations). He is also a Fellow at the U.S.-Mexico Foundation. The U.S.-Mexico Foundation is a binational non-profit organization dedicated to fostering bilateral cooperation and improving the understanding between the United States and Mexico by activating key people in the relationship that once were dormant. Twitter: @usmexicofound