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Continental Existentialism: Prominent NAFTA critic Stephen Clarkson seeks a new political vision

Christopher Sands

Governing the Continent after NAFTA and 9/11
By Stephen Clarkson
University of Toronto Press/Woodrow Wilson Center Press
592 pages, $29.95

In 1946, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre argued in an essay, Existentialism is a Humanism, that “[m]an is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.”

This “no-excuses” attitude toward living life under the awesome responsibility of knowing and acting and accepting consequences, even when, as humans, we did not ask to be born, is the bracing challenge of existentialist philosophy.

University of Toronto professor Stephen Clarkson has a similar responsibility in mind as he considers the provocative question that forms the title of his latest book, Does North America Exist? At one level, geography, Clarkson accepts that there is a space that can be called North America. This is, to borrow Sartre’s terminology, North America pour fait – a fact. Yet Clarkson’s interest is not in the fact of North America, but in the created North America that may, or may not, exist pour soi.

Is North America a community of peoples with some sense of fellow-feeling linking them together? Is it a nascent political community with prototypical institutions that will shape this continent along European lines into a kind of continental superstate?

To answer these questions, Clarkson took three groups of his best students with him in different years from 2002 to 2007 to Washington to interview analysts and gauge U.S. elite attitudes, and with the help of the students gathered an impressive amount of quantitative data and virtually every paper or study on any aspect of North American integration. (Full disclosure: I spoke to the students on each of Clarkson’s trips, and am one of the very few Canada-watchers resident at one of Washington’s think tanks.)

Clarkson uses this impressive collection of information to document North American relations as he finds them. Separate chapters consider institutions, particularly related to judicial decision-making, the environment, water management and labour. Additional chapters consider linkages among the business communities of the three North American free trade agreement countries, the energy sector, agricultural trade, the steel industry, textiles, capital markets and banking, and pharmaceuticals. (Strangely, the automotive industry, perhaps the most integrated sector in North America and one that accounts for as much as 40 per cent of North American trade flows, does not have its own chapter.)

Clarkson then considers the evolution of border security since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, continental defence arrangements and the ongoing Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP), an initiative launched in 2005 by U.S. President George W. Bush which is currently under review by the incoming foreign policy team of president-elect Barack Obama, and may or may not continue.

Readers familiar with Clarkson’s past work will not be surprised that he is skeptical throughout this new book of the intentions of business interests and the political vision of North America as a continental market where rules and regulations are eliminated in the name of competitiveness with other regions of the world where governance and the rule of law are underdeveloped. No one who does not already share Clarkson’s world view will find here a compelling case for rethinking North American relations.

However, the book does fascinate as Clarkson raises the question, rarely considered in Washington or Mexico City, of Canada’s responsibility for North America. Even if Canadians such as Clarkson did not ask for North America as it is now to be born, Clarkson argues that they must take responsibility for the consequences.

It is in this message that Clarkson goes further than in his past books, and surpasses many others that express contempt for continentalism and globalization and offer reactionary alternatives that amount to rolling back NAFTA and the World Trade Organization to return to the lost world of the 1970s. Clarkson’s thinking is truly progressive, in that he is focused on how to move forward; it is also profoundly realist, in acknowledging as honestly as he can where it is that we must begin.

Clarkson demonstrates that there is no proper North American government established by NAFTA or the SPP. At present, the continent is governed by its three sovereign states and dominated by the hegemonic superpower centrally located on the continent. However, Clarkson points to hopeful signs that some transboundary governance is possible as civil-society activists and organizations ally themselves to establish continental norms, better regulations and standards.

Like Clarkson, Obama is a NAFTA critic; he is also known to be a pragmatist. If the president-elect had the time to read Clarkson’s book, it might persuade him to go beyond cancelling NAFTA to pursuing a better North American community.

It would be a worthy task for the United States’ first community-organizer president, and possibly the first existentialist-continentalist leader in North America as well.

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