The Three Amigos: Whistling past the graveyard?

In Ottawa, the three North American leaders speak up for the reigning postwar doctrine of free trade and economic integration. But disintegration seems more in fashion as their rivals at home and abroad build up walls.

North American leaders continue to preach integration, but what they need is more amigos

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, left, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama, right, continue to talk of greater integration and building bridges, but putting up walls seems to be the rage in politics these days. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

"We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."
   — Benjamin Franklin at the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, 1776.

You knew they would hang together, and they did. Justin Trudeau, Barack Obama and Enrique Pena Nieto all stood up for closer economic integration and against the blistering winds of disintegration that whirl around the globe.

"Working together always beats going it alone," Trudeau declared.

Obama argued that resistance to globalization is futile: "The integration of national economies into a global economy — that's here! That's done!"

Obama conceded that inequality is "a legitimate gripe." But — in an implied shot at a protectionist Donald Trump — he added that "pulling up the drawbridge" is "the wrong medicine."

Still, the outcome of this contest of ideas hardly seems like a sure thing. The other side of the argument is having a good year. 

It can't happen here

Canadians under the spell of a hip new government may see the creeping fondness for building walls as a foreign phenomenon — a freak show on the evening news. The British turn their backs on Europe and on immigrants of all kinds. The Chinese and Russian dictatorships tighten their grip and build up their defences. Nativist leaders rise in eastern Europe and the Islamic world burns from Libya to Pakistan. And, in the United States, Donald Trump stands ready to tear up NAFTA, wall off Mexico and ban Muslims.

But we're more sophisticated, right?

Obama on Brexit

6 years ago
Duration 1:59
U-S President Barrack Obama spoke at the closing news conference of the North American Leaders summit in Ottawa

Perhaps. That's what British Prime Minister David Cameron thought about his own people when he ordered up the Brexit referendum. And that's what the entire American establishment thought when Donald Trump first ran for president.

Likewise, the leftist long shot Senator Bernie Sanders. And now? Everybody sits up and listens when Sanders says about Brexit, "Could this rejection of the current form of the global economy happen in the United States? You bet it could."

Walls are the rage 

But it's already happening. Hillary Clinton has gone cold on NAFTA — her husband's signature trade agreement — and she's done a U-turn on the TPP — the transpacific deal that she heartily endorsed as secretary of state. Constancy may not be her strong suit, but knowing which way the wind blows is.

So the wind will keep blowing. Whoever becomes the next U.S. president, there will be no free ride for the animating principles of the postwar order — co-operation among nations and the tearing down of barriers to trade, people, ideas and capital. These small-l liberal aspirations no longer appeal, if they ever did, to the 13 million who've already voted for Trump or to the 17 million who voted for Brexit.

In that sense, the brotherly photo-op of Trudeau with Obama and Pena Nieto tells us the opposite of what's really happening. They're trying to build bridges when walls are all the rage. They're giving us more NAFTA while their critics on both the left and right are making it a dirty word.

Obama: 'The world needs more Canada'

6 years ago
Duration 1:22
Obama: 'The world needs more Canada'

Simultaneously, Obama's time is ticking away and Pena Nieto, having dropped the ball on corruption, security and human rights, has seen his disapproval rating reach an unprecedented 66 per cent. That's even higher than Trudeau's approval rating, now around 62 per cent.

Of the three, then, only Trudeau seems to have the wind at his back — and, for the most part, Canadians are properly gobsmacked that the British told the European Union to take a hike.

But a handful of Conservatives — Jason Kenney, Maxime Bernier and Tony Clement — have actually hailed Brexit as a triumph and, when it's our own trading bloc that's at issue, Canadians suddenly get less keen on free trade. In a recent Angus Reid Institute poll, only a quarter of us thought NAFTA had any benefit at all.

It's also worth recalling that we had an election on free trade, back in 1988, and the anti-free traders would have won by the same margin as Brexit if they hadn't split the vote. 

Yes, Brian Mulroney's Conservatives won that election. But, just like the 52 per cent who voted for Brexit, 52 per cent of Canadian voters chose parties opposed to free trade with the United States — 32% for the Liberals and 20% for the NDP. On a binary, yes-or-no question, the free traders likely would have gone down in flames.

Call the Brexiteers a bunch of yahoos if you like — but don't say it couldn't happen here.

Get rich, then buy my stuff

Now, in Ottawa, the Three Amigos have made a stand for an integrated future, adding what they can to the partnership. Canada will stop forcing Mexican visitors to get visas. Mexico will open its doors to Canadian beef. Both will join the U.S. in cutting methane emissions.

But are they winning the argument about fundamentals? For decades, conventional economics has decreed that a richer you makes a richer me. If you buy more of my stuff, I can afford more of yours — so freer international trade is good by definition.

Now, that definition is under siege. President Obama says he will "push back." But history suggests that protectionism is no pushover.

The Three Amigos will need a lot more amigos.


Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.


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