In a changing world that is witnessing the end of America's global dominance, what is North America's future?

What, in fact, does North America mean, besides its obvious geographic location?

Is it really a common home for the citizens of our three countries — Canada, the U.S. and Mexico?

How can that be, you might ask, when the largest has bulked up its border defences to such an extent and seems to like playing footsie with economic protectionism?

North America is clearly at a strategic crossroad and the question we ought to be asking is how do we move forward together. 

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Canada's Stephen Harper, Mexico's Felipe Calderon and U.S. President Barack Obama at an impromptu North American summit to deal with swine flu and cross-border trade in August 2009. (Associated Press)

At a recent conference on North America's future at Berkeley, experts from the University of California and the University of British Columbia presented a host of material showing there are fewer differences between Canadians and Americans than are commonly believed.

As usual, the data shows Canadians are more apt to favour government services because they are seen to have worked.

Americans, on the other hand, have a stronger commitment to religion, especially evangelical, as part of their collective identity.

But there are no big cleavages that could block closer integration on vital issues such as the environment, energy or a common security.

So, what stands in the way of our moving forward?

The brooders

The Berkeley conference was not lacking for eminent Canadian (and American) do-ers.

The participants included former ministers Joe Clark, Ann McLellan, Pierre-Marc Johnson, and David Emerson as well as a bi-national group of savvy scholars and former ambassadors such as Canadian Allan Gotlieb and the American Thomas Pickering.

For his part, Gotlieb, who championed Brian Mulroney's free-trade deal during his period in Washington in the 1980s, despaired that the combined effects of 9/11 and the U.S. financial meltdown has turned America inward and defensive.

The recent, so-called thickening of the Canada-U.S. border, he said, has smothered the gains of the 1988 free trade agreement and its 1994 North American (NAFTA) successor. 

What's more, he went on, Canada has lost strategic significance for Washington, despite the importance of our energy exports. All in all, "we don't see where we are going."

Preoccupied America

There was little comfort from this assessment from the American "realists" on the panel.

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A lineup on the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor and Detroit after the Bush administration raised the terror alert in 2003. (Canadian Press)

They argued that the current Obama government, preoccupied as it is with its election promises, along with a dysfunctional Congress, means that now is not the moment to expect political capital to be spent on "non-U.S." solutions.

Still, there was noticeable pushback against this kind of laconic surrender.

David Emerson, Stephen Harper's former trade minister, argued compellingly that strengthening globally efficient North American supply chains, in a re-energized NAFTA, would be a vital element in restoring the competitive position of all three North American economies.

And Tom Pickering, one of the U.S.'s top ambassadors in his day, challenged Canada and the U.S. in particular to come up with a bite-sized list of strategic "project-models" that would be beneficial for both sides.

Working together

Pickering's suggestion box included such joint projects as managing the Arctic, developing a complementary energy/environment strategy, building shared-border processing facilities for commercial exchange, and striking, at last, some sort of binding arbitration for our recurrent trade disputes.

On foreign policy, Pickering didn't think Canada and the U.S. had to move in lockstep.

But he suggested that a president as committed as Barack Obama is to consulting widely on the international front, should be much more open to Canada's input — provided we can resurrect some of our established talents for multilateral diplomacy.

Pickering's views seem to mirror what is being said these days in official Washington.

The Americans know they have a crowded political agenda. But they also readily see the strategic importance of big challenges, especially those that give credit to a leader with the courage to fight for them, as Obama has done on health care.

The Washington message is that the administration would welcome Canada coming forward with some sort of government-level plan on strategic cooperation.

A proposal for a common security perimeter, which would address U.S. concerns as well, would be especially timely given that Canada's pending Afghan pullout next year looms as a political disappointment south of the border.

Climate change

Security, though, isn't the only issue where Canada could have an impact in Washington.

University of Toronto professor Franklin Griffiths, one of Canada's leading experts on the Arctic, made the cogent case for Canada and the U.S. to work together to develop a responsible stewardship of our northernmost frontier.

Apart from enhancing northern security, a joint plan for the Arctic would be an example of how continental partners could become global "first movers" on a key issue of international concern.

But on the over-arching issue of the day, climate change, the view was more pessimistic.

The Canadians here observed that Ottawa has no strategy, nor apparent interest, in mitigating climate change in a dedicated way.

Despite the fact that it is becoming increasingly clear that the development of Alberta's oil sands somehow has to be reconciled with the growing determination at the state and national levels down here to do something about global warming.

Continental identity

Divergent agendas on big issues like climate change, of course, can be seen as a test of how much importance we really feel about our North American identities.

We are two countries that have developed through immigration, but we have also grown through different sources.

More recently, Canada's population growth is stemming from South Asia and China, while the U.S. is drawing upon its Hispanic neighbours to the south.

The U.S. melting pot is clearly becoming more of a continental, English- and Spanish-speaking mix, even though most people are probably not familiar with the notion of North America as a common home.

The same might be said for Canada's traditional view of sharing North American power with Mexico.

We have tended to be overly possessive about our "special" bilateral relationship with Washington and fearful of Mexico's growing influence.

But as we talked through the implications of our common, continental problems, it became clear that we Canadians will have to change our sense of our own importance.

As former Liberal deputy prime minister Ann McLellan put it: "What part of the Mexicans' importance to the U.S. don't Canadians get?"

I can't speak for everyone. But it seemed to me that, for its part, this conference got the need to strengthen our trilateral relations.

Not as an alternative to the separate bilateral ones, but as a complementary effort to give North America some strategic and community dimensions, and to better position all three countries globally.

Today, both NAFTA and Canada's influence in the rest of North America need revival.

It may be true that a small-picture minority government is not yet up to such big-picture tasks.

But outside of government, the work on North America has begun.