Politics & Policy

Americas First

United States and Mexican flags at an immigration reform rally in Los Angeles in 2013. (Reuters photo: Lucy Nicholson)
What Trump overlooked in his U.N. speech

It is easy to forget about the Canadians.

President Donald J. Trump made a speech to the United Nations, an organization he had recently dismissed as an impotent debating club, during which he mentioned North Korea, Iran, Syria, Israel, China, France, the United Kingdom, Cuba, Venezuela — even the USSR, which no longer exists. Two nations did not make the president’s roll call: Canada and Mexico.

Americans have an uncomplicated relationship with Canada. Mostly, we do not think about Canada at all. Sometimes, we joke about it, and sometimes we resent it on the theory that it has built its welfare state while freeloading under the U.S. military umbrella, a foolish if common complaint applied by Trump and other populists to Western Europe, too, as though we maintained all those troops in Germany to help out the Germans. Canada, on the other hand, has a complicated relationship with the United States, a country its people often resent for the same reason Philadelphia resents New York City.

But turning our eyes south for a moment ought to make us grateful for our neighbors to the north. We could hardly ask for better neighbors than the Canadians. Aside from some unpleasant business during and right after the Revolutionary War, the Canadians have been no trouble at all. American populists left and right get the vapors when they think about our “addiction to foreign oil,” as Barack Obama put it, but more of our U.S. energy imports come from Canada than from anywhere else — in fact, Canada provides more of our imported oil than all of the Persian Gulf producers combined. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that Washington’s batty talk about “American energy independence” has been replaced by talk of “North American energy independence.” That’s because we get so much of our energy from Canada and from our No. 3 supplier, Mexico. For similar reasons, we now label automobiles by what share of their components is of “North American origin.”

The Canadians buy about $320 billion worth of goods and services from U.S. producers each year and in 2016 sold Americans about $308 billion, resulting in a small trade surplus for the United States vis-à-vis Canada. There is a great deal of cross-border commerce, cultural and educational connections, immigration, and much more. And when the United States has been obliged to send its troops into war, the Canadians have been right beside us. That’s not to say that our relations have been entirely harmonious: Decrying the recent flood of illegal immigrants across his southern border, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau has done everything except promise to build a wall and make Donald Trump pay for it. Good neighbors make good fences.

Trump’s speech to the United Nations touched on two interesting themes: One was his usual “America First” shtick, in this case bitching that the United States is obliged to bear a larger share of the United Nations’ expenses than are those loafers in Eritrea and Guinea and mocking Kim Jong-un as “Rocket Man.” (You can hardly blame him for that: Demeaning nicknames won him the Republican party’s presidential nomination. If it ain’t broke . . . ) The other was lavishing praise on the Marshall Plan — which, on the surface of it, was one of the least “America First” initiatives of the 20th century.

The Marshall Plan was a transnational do-gooder scheme cooked up by a bunch of Ivy League eggheads (George F. Kennan practically defined “establishment”) and longtime political insiders organized by the Brookings Institution. It was — angels and ministers of grace defend us! — bipartisan, and it was damned expensive. It was opposed by the nationalist-populists of the time and championed by such gilded globalists as Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. It was also one of the great successes of American diplomacy.

The Marshall Plan succeeded because it conjoined the best of American idealism with a hardheaded assessment of American interests. The voters in Kansas were not out in the streets demanding aid for the reconstruction of Berlin, but the American leadership of the time understood that there is something more to leadership than getting out in front of a parade, and they knew that the speedy recovery of Western Europe — including that of the peoples who had just been making war on us — was necessary to counterbalance the rise of the red empire in the east. The United States even offered assistance to the Soviet Union and to its Eastern Bloc satellites, but that offer was declined.

The United States knew that it was better off with a strong and prosperous Germany, Italy, France, and United Kingdom, even though those countries, once recovered, would become economic competitors, as indeed would Japan, on behalf of which the United States made tremendous investments. We are better off with a rich and stable Canada on our northern border. And we’d be better off with a rich and stable Mexico to our south.

Think of how much better-off we would be if we had a country more like Germany or France to our south — or a sunnier Canada — than the neighbor we’ve actually got.

Mexico is a poor country by North American standards, but a middle-income one by world standards. It has oil and other natural resources, a highly developed economy, a sophisticated civil society, and a government that is feckless and corrupt but reasonably stable. It also has some serious problems, and it would be very much in the interest of the United States to see some of those problems mitigated. Think of how much better-off we would be if we had a country more like Germany or France to our south — or a sunnier Canada — than the neighbor we’ve actually got.

Almost nobody — no conservative — has anything good to say lately about Mexico, which produces a great deal of oil but whose most visible exports are Mexicans, mostly desperately poor ones, and drugs. (And, of course, Mexicans carrying drugs.) The lawlessness in the cartel-controlled parts of Mexico, the continued flood of illegals across the border (Trump’s boasting notwithstanding, illegal border crossings were up sharply in the early summer), the Mexican government’s inability or disinclination to do much about these, and the anti-immigration and anti-foreign sentiment currently gripping much of the electorate have many Americans less than eager to see Washington investing any additional time or resources in problems south of the border. A Marshall Plan for Mexico? Good luck selling that.

But something along those lines would in fact be an intelligent investment in North American stability, security, and prosperity.

Yesterday, Mexico’s capital was struck by a terrible earthquake. Buildings collapsed. Two weeks before, more than 90 people died in another earthquake. Mexicans organized relief efforts and raised substantial sums of money and stores of supplies, but they were hampered in getting them to those in need. Why? Corrupt government. The New York Times reports:

The catastrophe has thrown Mexicans’ simmering distrust of their government into sharp relief as suspicions mount that aid will be diverted for political gain — or simply siphoned off by corrupt officials.

“Historically, there has been a lack of openness” in disaster relief, Eduardo Bohórquez, the director of Transparency Mexico, an anti-corruption group. “It’s not clear that it reaches the victims.” Now, with the earthquake, he said, “something which has not been resolved in the country reappears.”

Eduardo Bohórquez is being rather gentle.

The first item on the agenda should be reforming U.S. drug laws in the direction of liberalization and decriminalization.

There is much the United States could do to help Mexico — and to help itself at the same time. The first item on the agenda should be reforming U.S. drug laws in the direction of liberalization and decriminalization, thus robbing the narcotics cartels of their principal raison d’être and their most important revenue stream. With that done, the United States could help Mexico develop a plan for demilitarizing its law-enforcement programs and drug-interdiction activities. (We might want to come up with a plan like that for ourselves.) We should expand our already deep economic and governmental ties with an eye toward helping Mexico to rein in corruption and money-laundering — if you want to revisit NAFTA, that is one area that could in fact use some attention. We should help Mexico build more effective institutions and improve existing ones, securing not only physical security and the rule of law but also more accountable and representative government.

Doing that would require some tricky negotiations and awkward conversations. It would also require some financial outlays and a long-term political engagement that not many in Washington are at the moment interested in considering.

Most difficult, it would require acknowledging that there is no wall high enough to keep Mexico’s problems entirely in Mexico.

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