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IDEAS

The rise and fall of North America

For the first time in living memory, the continent’s three biggest countries are poorly led.

A demonstrator held a sign denouncing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador for "devastating Mexico" with his handling of COVID-19.
A demonstrator held a sign denouncing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador for "devastating Mexico" with his handling of COVID-19.PEDRO PARDO/AFP via Getty Images

Where is the geographic center of global power? It has shifted over the centuries. Persia, Greece, and Rome created the first empires. After they declined, China emerged to replace them. Around 1500, Europe began the spectacular rise that led it to dominate much of the world. Finally, in the 20th century, power shifted to North America. That brief era may now be ending.

One of the main reasons is the declining level of political leadership in North America’s three large countries: Mexico, the United States, and Canada. If well governed, these three countries could take advantage of the rapidly shifting global environment to position North America as an anchor of stability and a model for the world. Instead they are going in the opposite direction. For the first time in living memory, all three are poorly led.

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The United States, which should by most measures lead this three-nation bloc, is immersed in turmoil for which President Trump bears much blame. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, who began his term in 2018 amid great optimism, has become an object of national ridicule for his failure to focus on pressing national problems — and for his recommendation that Mexicans wear amulets to protect themselves against the raging pandemic. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was also hugely popular when he took office five years ago, but as a result of scandals and missteps, his popularity has dropped below the 50-percent level for the first time. Canada’s fall from international grace was evident last week, when the United Nations rejected its four-year campaign for a seat on the Security Council, selecting Norway and Ireland instead.

The political decline of our continent is lamentable to the point of poignancy. Canada, the United States, and Mexico generate enormous wealth. They have the resources to create just and thriving societies. To a certain extent they have succeeded. None is approaching failed-state status. Yet all three seem to have lost their vitality and sense of purpose.

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In the 1930s, both the United States and Mexico were governed by great presidents, Franklin Roosevelt and Lazaro Cardenas. After World War II, President Dwight Eisenhower, Canada’s staid Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and the famously honest President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines of Mexico gave the continent steady leadership. In the 1970s Canada was brilliantly led by Pierre Trudeau, father of the current prime minister. President Jimmy Carter was not quite the rock star that Trudeau became, but much of the world admired his commitment to social justice and human rights.

During the 1990s, as Bill Clinton was embracing Wall Street and cutting social programs, leaders of Mexico and Canada took the opposite course. President Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico steered his country through an economic crisis, created a program to serve the poor, and ended one-party rule by reforming the Mexican electoral system. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien of Canada cancelled the privatization of a large airport, unsuccessfully pressed Clinton for changes in the North American Free Trade Agreement, saved his country from dissolution by helping to defeat a referendum for Quebec independence, and maintained good relations with the leaders of Cuba, China, and Russia.

At the beginning of the 20th century, President George W. Bush led the United States into what became a series of devastating conflicts in the Middle East and surrounding regions. That led to a surge in anti-American feeling in many countries, but the enmity did not extend to Canada or Mexico. Both countries refused to join the anti-Iraq coalition. Mexico has always had an independent foreign policy, and Chrétien later said he was happy to have shown the world that Canada is not “the 51st state of America.”

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Political cycles naturally produce good and bad leaders, but at this moment the cycles of Canada, the United States, and Mexico have hit low points at the same time. Trump has turned his country into a radically polarized battleground and shredded its image in the world. López Obrador is reviled not only because he, like Trump, has tried to laugh off the pandemic; he has also mirrored Trump by refusing to confront corruption in government, as he promised during his campaign, and by failing to produce any strategic vision for pulling his country out of its mounting crises.

Trudeau is the most mystifying case. He turned his back on his proclaimed environmentalism by building a multi-billion-dollar pipeline to transport oil from Canadian tar sands, was found to have acted unethically by trying to shield a construction conglomerate from prosecution for paying foreign bribes, and signed off on the sale of 900 armored personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia. He has endorsed US-sponsored efforts to overthrow the government of Venezuela and met with the “interim president” Trump seeks to impose on that country. His Mexican counterpart, in contrast, has vowed to send fuel to Venezuela in defiance of American sanctions because “no one has the right to oppress others, no hegemony is allowed to crush any country.”

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Leaders of Canada, the United States, and Mexico should be inspiring the world and providing new paradigms for social and political life in the 21st century. Instead their missteps have robbed North America of much of its moral authority and strategic power. The vacuum they have created cannot be filled by Africa or Latin America. Europe has the resources to do it but is racked by upheaval and self-doubt. That leaves China and Russia, plus ambitious second-tier powers like Turkey, Iran, and India. The decline of North America fuels their rise.


Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.