North America: More Support Than Meets the Eye

By Malcolm Fairbrother, Tom Long, and Clarisa Pérez-Armendáriz*

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (L) and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (R) join President Joe Biden for the North American Leaders Summit (NALS) at The White House/ The White House/ Flickr/ United States government work

U.S., Canadian, and Mexican leaders’ support for North American integration has ebbed and flowed in the years since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1994. But our analysis of some previously little-known polls taken a few years ago shows that, even when support for trade integration and other big-picture institutional initiatives has been weak, interest in some forms of cooperation has been relatively strong in all three countries.

  • Discussions of North American integration have been fraught from the beginning. Fiery debates over NAFTA in the early 1990s meant politicians had to work hard to sell regional cooperation. Canadian politicians’ approach to North America has been pragmatic, low-key, and mostly bilateral with the United States. U.S. politicians gave North American cooperation a tepid embrace at best, until Donald Trump turned to repeatedly badmouthing NAFTA and both neighbors. Although Mexican political and business leaders’ enthusiasm for NAFTA has cooled in recent years, and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is a longtime NAFTA critic, they have made a reluctant peace with its regional economic structures.

Perceptions of NAFTA as a political loser paint too dark a scenario for North American cooperation. Though U.S. views briefly soured and polarized in 2016-17, strong public support for the agreement’s successor – the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) – suggest those negative views were short-lived. North American cooperation beyond trade enjoys robust support. Our analysis of surveys conducted before the “Trump shock” shows that respondents in Canada, Mexico, and the United States have long favored more cooperation in a variety of areas, albeit with a few important qualifications. In our recently published study, Areas, Sovereignty Costs, and North Americans’ Attitudes Toward Regional Cooperation, we show: 

  • The three countries share strikingly similar aggregate levels of support for free trade. But levels of support for regional coordination in six different issue areas – currency, energy, defense, economic affairs, environment, and border security – vary by issue and country, and are often higher. For respondents, it matters “on what” North America cooperates in ways that questions about trade and NAFTA do not capture. For example, there was significant support in all three countries for regional policy coordination with respect to environmental protection and border security.
  • Mexicans show the highest level of aggregate support for regional cooperation, but also the greatest variation by issue area, suggesting that they are attuned to the potential costs and benefits of cooperating in an asymmetrical region. Only Mexicans express much support for North American currency coordination, but they showed comparatively little desire for cooperation in energy. They are strong backers of border and environmental cooperation.
  • Although Canadians are skeptical of the benefits of some aspects of the relationship, they also identify cooperation on the border and environment as worth pursuing. Canadians expressed the lowest average support for policy coordination. In contrast to their government’s approach, Canadians slightly prefer trilateralism to bilateralism. Indeed, Canadians, Mexicans, and Americans don’t always want to cooperate trilaterally. Americans report stronger support for regionalism with Canada alone, rather than trilateral cooperation with both Canada and Mexico. 

North America is a highly asymmetric, U.S.-centric region. That shapes patterns of public attitudes as Canadians and Mexicans are concerned about national vulnerabilities vis-a-vis the United States. Mexican citizens’ support appears to be shaped by perceptions that Mexico stands to gain from regional cooperation on many shared problems that Mexico struggles to address alone, such as the environment and border security. Still, support for coordination in the United States also was comparatively high for border security, perhaps a result of politicians’ dramatizing a supposed U.S. inability to “control” the border. 

  • Paying attention to the issues where public support exists and overlaps may allow supporters of regional projects to build on firmer – albeit narrow – ground.

March 22, 2022

Malcolm Fairbrother is Professor in the Department of Sociology, Umeå University and the Institute for Futures Studies, Sweden, and the Department of Sociology, University of Graz, in Austria. Tom Long is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick, UK and Affiliated Professor in the División de Estudios Internacionales, Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, Mexico. Clarisa Pérez-Armendáriz is Associate Professor the Politics Department and Program in Latin American and Latinx Studies at Bates College, USA. This article, part of the Robert A. Pastor North American Research Initiative, draws on “Issue-Areas, Sovereignty Costs, and North Americans’ Attitudes Toward Regional Cooperation,” published recently in Global Studies Quarterly. The underlying surveysRethinking North America, were conducted in 2013 by Miguel Basáñez, Frank Graves, and Robert Pastor. 

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: