About midway through the three-day North Capital Forum in Mexico City’s Centro Histórico last week, I started having the most delicious geopolitical fantasy: Imagine if North America could just secede to another planet; we’d be set.
I can blame Robert Kahn, an economist at the Eurasia Group, as one of several dazzling minds convened at the Forum by the U.S.-Mexico Foundation (on whose board I serve, though I can take no credit for the remarkable event) for making me dream of a North American secession. With remarkable dispassion, Kahn talked about the ebbing tide of globalization, the coming “geopolitical recession” triggered and aggravated by such disparate factors as post-Covid supply chain disruptions, Russia’s escalating war in the Ukraine, China’s disastrous response to the pandemic, and crises of political legitimacy all over the place.
Looking off into the not-too-distant horizon, Kahn is optimistic about North America, however. We are comparatively better off than any other region of the world, with a special advantage when it comes to meeting our energy needs. We should do well if only the world doesn’t blow itself up or melts itself down. If only we could be left on our own.
My fantasy is also fueled by the Council on Foreign Relations’ Shannon O’Neil, one of the more perceptive analysts on all things Mexico, who gave a talk at the Forum pegged to her latest book, “The Globalization Myth: Why Regions Matter.” O’Neil argues that regionalization may have been a more proper term than globalization to discuss the bulk of cross-border integration occurring around the world over the past few decades. O’Neil points out that when you look at the distribution of multinational companies’ sales or trade flows or foreign direct investment, you see that most of these are concentrated within certain global neighborhoods.
Our North American neighborhood, O’Neil agrees with Kahn, is particularly blessed, and is a particularly blessing to the United States. But our politics these days, both in Mexico and in the United States, aren’t really in a mood to recognize that. Ever since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s, things keep getting in the way of North America fulfilling its regional potential. China’s admission to the WTO. 9/11. Trump and populism.
Then there is the identity gap. For all the technocratic wizardry on display at the Forum, and the high-level diplomatic exchanges – the event served as a pre-game show to the North American Leaders’ Summit to be held later in the year – the questions hovering over every conversation last week were rather intangible: What is North America? And what does it want to become?
The Forum’s hashtag “#theNorthAmericanWay” was a clever acknowledgment of this identity question, a provocation to define a region that is often not even acknowledged by those who live in it. Before heading down to Mexico, the Las Vegas Review-Journal was just the latest U.S. publication I wrote to inform that Mexico was not in Central America, where one of the newspaper’s articles placed it. Though in fairness to editors in Vegas, plenty of Mexicans don’t themselves identify as “North Americans.” A Canadian official at the Forum was overheard saying he didn’t see the need for a “North American Way” either. And upon arriving back at the Phoenix airport after three days of North American solidarity, the separate line at immigration for “Canadian Visitors” was a further reminder that our three countries still have a long way to go before becoming more of a region and less of a set of interlocking bilateral relationships.
Perhaps the most interesting session at the Forum (those of you who know me will know my biases here) was a roundtable on the 2026 FIFA Men’s World Cup our three North American countries will share. This is, after all, the ultimate thought experiment, and branding challenge. Instead of talking about North American identity in the abstract, how do you define and leverage #theNorthAmericanWay to sell the world’s biggest sporting and entertainment spectacle?
Is the World Cup being shared by distinct countries, as Japan and Korea shared one in 2002? Is this a third World Cup for Mexico, a second one for the United States, a first for Canada, or is it the first ever held in an integrated region?
It’s interesting to go back and read the bid’s impressive 530-page winning proposal presented to FIFA, which comes across as a bit of a placeholder on the above questions. It refers to itself as “the United Bid” characterized by “Unity. Certainty. Opportunity.” It lays out what each country can contribute to the World Cup, and what the World Cup can do for each country. It’s certainly persuasive, but it is also remarkably modest in making sweeping claims about regional integration, or what the tournament will do to advance it.
The United Bid talked about three countries “sharing borders and values,” and of “diverse populations connected through similar stories of struggle, and dreams of success.” It also spells out that ours are democratic nations (no offense intended, surely, to other World Cup hosts) whose World Cup will not raise human rights concerns.
It’s a start, but not much of a definition of “#theNorthAmericanWay.” But we can work on that between now and the tournament’s opening match four years from now, when our regional trade agreement, the USMCA, will coincidentally also be up for review.
Unfortunately, though, we have to figure all this out on this planet, with all its other distractions.
* Andrés Martínez is professor of practice at the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine and New America. Twitter: @AndresDCmtz