Like the majority of his modern predecessors, President Obama has looked to Europe, the Middle East, and Asia as the regions where America’s vital interests are most often engaged. This year is no different as the United States copes with a lethal combination of challenges from the metastasizing Iraq-Syria civil war to Russian aggression in Ukraine, Chinese adventurism in Asia, and the climate and Ebola crises.
While these threats won’t go away anytime soon, there is better news for Americans closer to home in the form of a strategic opportunity right in our own backyard. In an unusually far-sighted report issued last week, two of our country’s most impressive global strategists — David Petraeus, former CIA director and head of US Central Command, and former World Bank President Bob Zoellick — make a compelling case that Americans should work with Mexico and Canada to build a new North American partnership for the future. Issued by the Council on Foreign Relations (where I serve on the board of directors), the report suggests we have the opportunity to realize a new era of growth and prosperity for the nearly 500 million people who live in our three countries.
As the United States climbs out of the Great Recession and recovers from two costly and divisive Middle East wars, the return road to a more successful American foreign policy might thus run through Mexico City and Ottawa. Twenty years ago, the three countries took a leap of faith by committing to the landmark North American Free Trade Agreement. Since then, we have enjoyed significantly greater investment, trade, and economic growth in North America.
To build on this success, Zoellick and Petraeus co-chaired a task force of American business, government, and academic leaders to consider how we might create an even closer, symbiotic future with Mexicans and Canadians. Their key judgment is that stronger ties with Canada and Mexico can create a “continental base for US global policy.” In other words, if we make North America, at long last, a much higher strategic priority, that might help to boost the long- term geo-strategic position of the United States itself.
To get there, Washington needs to move North America from the periphery to the center of its strategic attention. Zoellick and Petraeus advocate an ambitious strategy starting with new regional infrastructure to support the extraordinary growth in oil and gas production in the United States and Canada. Reluctant Democrats should listen to their call for administration approval of the Keystone pipeline project and an end to restrictions on the sale of American oil and gas overseas. Equally reluctant Republicans should listen to their support for immigration reform as a critical step to knit the region together.
They break new ground by suggesting Americans can be protected more effectively from terrorism and other threats if the United States tightens security not just on our own borders but works with Canada and Mexico to reinforce the much larger periphery of North America itself. They want Obama to push forward on pivotal free trade agreements that will bind North America more closely to our democratic allies in the Pacific and Europe.
American presidents nearly always promise to spend more time on Canada and Mexico. They rarely do as short-term fires elsewhere crowd out long-term focus here in North America. Obama and his successors have a chance to break that cycle. Americans are fortunate indeed to live next door to an energetic, rising Mexico and a prosperous, stable Canada. Shouldn’t Republicans and Democrats reach together for this unique opportunity on the horizon — to see North American success as a necessary foundation for America’s global future?
Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter @rnicholasburns.