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When It Comes to Trade, Harper Doesn't Like Three-Ways

Christopher Sands

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s veto of a Franco-German deal to address the European debt crisis cheered many British “Eurosceptics” sceptical of the whole project of European integration and jealous defenders of Britain’s sovereignty and independence as the best safeguards for the rights of Britons. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been resisting U.S. projects to advance North American integration trilaterally, preferring bilateral talks without Mexican participation. Is Harper advancing a North American version of Euroscepticism like his British counterpart?

North American scepticism (or perhaps it should be “skepticism” following the American spelling) would imply doubt about the transfer of national sovereignty to new, continental authorities and institutions. Yet the architects of continental economic integration in North America have always been careful to maintain national sovereignty, and have built few new institutions (and where institutions have been established, such as the North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation of the North American Commission on Labor Cooperation or even the North American Development Bank, they have been kept weak and accountable to the national governments). Proponents of further integration have not advanced plans for a common currency for North America. Critics of continental integration have invoked national sovereignty and democratic accountability, from the centre-right in the United States and from the centre-left in Canada and Mexico.

Canadian prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper have not embraced the Canadian centre-left’s sovereignty critique of continental integration that exercised their Liberal opposition John Turner and Michael Ignatieff. Mulroney and Harper embrace free markets and the reduction of border barriers to trade.

Harper is more nationalistic than Mulroney, but his scepticism takes a different form than his Canadian sovereigntist critics. It isn’t deepening integration that Harper approaches with caution, but trilateralism. Looking at the history of U.S.-Canadian relations, Harper appears to believe that progress in reducing economic barriers for Canadians has been faster and more profound when done bilaterally with the United States. Maybe it is because U.S. negotiators trust Canadians more, or share more cultural similarities. Perhaps it is that Canada is not seen as a threat to U.S. security or competitiveness. Nostalgically, it may be due to a memory of the shared sacrifice the two countries endured during the wars of the 20th century, or more contemporaneously, in Afghanistan.

Another interpretation is that Harper associates free markets with the Anglosphere, the countries that share a British heritage. American scholar James C. Bennett has made the case that the fundamental rights of private property, contract, rule of law, and limited responsible government that emerged from the Magna Carta in 1215 are the essential basis for free markets and stable integration. Like the Canadian-born Conrad Black, Bennett is both a Eurosceptic and a NAFTA sceptic because the addition of non-Anglosphere countries inevitably reduces liberty and the potential for free markets.

Only Harper and his intimates know for certain what motivates his reluctance to accept the trilateral framework for negotiating further continental integration that the United States has favored under Democratic and Republican administrations since Reagan. It would be wrong to categorize this Canadian outlook as a North American version of Euroscepticism; its principles are quite different. And while Anglospherianism can’t be ruled out, this explanation sets up an inevitable clash between the U.S. and Canadian visions of continental integration where Mexico is concerned.

Harper’s posture falls short of a rigid Anglospherianism, I suspect. Rather, it is merely a form of “trioscepticism” that doubts that sufficient progress can be made among three, and trusts more in the track-record of bilateral talks as the last best hope for Canadian interests on the continent. As such, it can be overcome by evidence of trilateral progress, and American persistence.

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