The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
To look around the world is to realize how fortunate the United States is to share a continent with friendly, stable, and democratic nations. Devastating conflicts in the Middle East, tense territorial disputes in Asia, a resurgent Russia, and now a historic threat to the European Union all underscore the extent to which North America offers the United States a uniquely advantageous strategic base.
But the relative calm and prosperity of this continent must not be taken for granted. The presumptive Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, has proposed a set of reckless immigration and border security policies that would invite discord and decline to the United States’ neighborhood.
There is a better way forward. Today, U.S. President Barack Obama will meet his Canadian and Mexican counterparts in Ottawa for the tenth North American Leaders’ Summit. The summit represents an opportunity for the three of them to set out a common agenda for taking advantage of North America’s unparalleled strategic position.
The continent’s first unique advantage is geographic. Canada, Mexico, and the United States enjoy productive and peaceful relations—embodied in more than 7,500 miles of calm frontiers and the buffer of two vast oceans. The United States’ main geopolitical competitors are not so lucky. Russia and China have a long history of insecure borders; Russia has fought two wars on its borders in the last ten years, and China finds itself in unresolved territorial disputes with nine of its neighbors. These countries’ aggressive postures have, unsurprisingly, only further antagonized those nearest to them.
The continent’s second advantage is economic. An open, integrated market of more than 450 million people, North America produces a combined annual output of $20.5 trillion—more than one quarter of global GDP. Trilateral trade has more than tripled in the 22 years since NAFTA went into effect, and today Canada and Mexico represent the United States’ two largest export markets. The United States exports nearly five times as much to Canada and Mexico as it does to China and nearly twice as much as to the entire European Union.
North America’s economic strength also rests on a comparatively positive demographic outlook: while other regions’ populations are aging and even declining, North America has maintained a relatively young and growing population. For example, by 2050, the median age in China, Germany, and Japan will be substantially higher than in the United States. A sensible immigration policy will help preserve this advantage.
To make the most of North America’s favorable position, Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto should use the North American Leaders’ Summit to advance the process of integration that began two decades ago. They should do so by committing to new and specific forms of cooperation that would enhance the continent’s strategic advantages.
This month’s horrific attack in Orlando demonstrated that security remains the number one priority for all three nations. And so, now is the time for an intensification of trilateral security cooperation. The three countries should focus on boosting intelligence sharing and border security, including by bringing Canada into the U.S-Mexican Twenty-First Century Border Management initiative.
Energy and trade are ripe for deeper cooperation as well. At the summit, the three heads of state should commit to further integrating cross-border energy infrastructure and to facilitating the cross-border flow of goods by harmonizing trilateral customs regulations.
Beyond these specific steps, the summit should reinforce a broader concept: that enhancing trade and cooperation makes the three countries stronger, not weaker. That may seem like an obvious point, but when a major party’s presidential nominee is proposing to take North America in exactly the opposite direction, it is one worth making.
In particular, Trump’s calls to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and to order mass deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants reveals a profound lack of understanding of economics, trade, and security. These policies would eviscerate the three neighbors’ sense of goodwill, undermining the material and strategic value of being situated in North America.
Trump’s wall would be ineffective, costly, and unnecessary given that net migration flows from Mexico have been trending downwards, with more Mexicans leaving the country than coming in. Even more troubling is Trump’s purported plan to compel Mexico to pay for the wall. In a memo to the Washington Post, Trump threatened that on his first day in office, he would cut off remittance payments from the United States to Mexico.
Severing these payments, which account for at least two percent of Mexico’s GDP, would amount to no less than a declaration of economic warfare on a neighbor. And not just any neighbor, one with whom the United States exchanges $500 billion in annual trade and that supports six million American jobs. Moreover, in addition to jeopardizing the U.S. economy, preventing Mexican-Americans from sending money home would fuel the rise of illicit remittance channels, thereby helping criminal money launderers and terrorist financiers achieve their nefarious goals.
Trump’s immigration proposals are equally wrongheaded. To forcibly round up 11 million people and drive them out of the country would be a hostile act, contrary to our core values and reminiscent of darker moments in our nation’s history. It would be deeply destabilizing and have negative geopolitical impacts throughout the hemisphere.
It would also be economically self-destructive. The conservative American Action Forum estimates that mass deportation would, in just two years, reduce real GDP by $1 trillion and shrink the labor force by 10.3 million workers. And because undocumented immigrants are concentrated in particular industries and geographic areas, the jobs left behind by deported workers would not be easily filled by U.S. citizens.
If Trump gets what he wants, it may be years before North America sees another friendly and productive trilateral summit. Indeed, it is very hard to imagine a President Trump at any such meeting. Fortunately, it is possible to avoid this path. The Canadian, Mexican, and U.S. leaders should come home from Ottawa with a shared message: that we are fortunate to share this continent and that deeper cooperation will make us safer and more prosperous. Now is the time to bring the neighborhood together, not to pull it apart.