NAFTA at 10
Yet despite its failures, NAFTA set in motion the economic integration of Canada, Mexico and the United States, which cannot now be stopped. Every day, more intracontinental connections in finance, marketing, production and other business networks are being hard-wired for a consolidated North American market. Ford pickup trucks are assembled in Mexico with engines from Ontario and transmissions from Ohio and Michigan. Canadian, Mexican and US investors have created a labyrinth of interconnected corporate assets. After a temporary post-9/11 slowdown, the cross-border movement of people--unskilled workers, educated professionals, retirees--continued.
Expanded markets require expanded rules. Out of public sight, the rulebooks are being filled in by NAFTA tribunals, trigovernmental commissions, administrative judges. Business-supported academic centers are humming with new proposals, ranging from guestworker programs, to the privatization of Canadian water and Mexican oil, to continental business tax policies. As a former Canadian ambassador to the United States recently commented, "Few days go by without new ideas for deepening NAFTA."
But while corporate business and its political clients are organized continentally, progressives are not. One reason is that the opposition to NAFTA in all three countries was in large part rooted in economic and political nationalism. The political heat that almost defeated the agreement in the US Congress was fueled by the specter of American jobs moving to Mexico. The Canadian opposition painted NAFTA as a threat to Americanize Canadian culture. In Mexico, opposition was rooted in its people's historic mistrust of Yankee imperialism.
Once the fight over NAFTA was settled, opposition groups moved back to domestic issues or moved on to defend against neoliberalism in other global settings, such as the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas and the new round of World Trade Organization negotiations. These are important battles, but the capacity of North American activists to influence these negotiations is marginal. For example, if the FTAA is permanently derailed, it will not be over a lack of social protections but because Latin American and US business interests cannot make a deal.
Back home, however, North American opponents of neoliberalism--because they can be a force in the domestic politics of all three nations--have more leverage to develop a socially responsive model of economic integration between rich and poor economies. Indeed, given the influence of the United States in setting the rules for the global economy, a visible, sustained challenge to the NAFTA model here may be the most important contribution progressives on this continent can make to the building of a more just global economic system.