With its superpower hegemon, its combination of two “northern” Anglo Saxon states with a “southern” Hispanic counterpart, and its limited regional institution, the North American regional project stands as something of an oddity.
While the North American continent is geographically united, the concept of a North American region as an economic and political space that includes Canada, the United States and Mexico is fairly new. It may be suggested that it was only with the signing of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1992, which expanded the preexisting bilateralism into a trilateral trade bloc, that North American regional cooperation was formally inaugurated.
NAFTA stands as a contested project. It has elicited both praise as a deemed source of growth, trade benefits and economic efficiency and criticism for its impact on domestic industries and job markets.
While there have been calls for an expansion of the integration efforts spearheaded by NAFTA, no such advances have been made. Emblematically, the manner that the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) initiative that was launched in 2005 simply disappeared speaks to a persistent reluctance to expand regional efforts beyond their present economic framework.
In drawing on Ann Capling and Kim Richard Nossal it may thus be suggested that North American regionalism is contradictory. On the one hand, NAFTA has clearly fostered the intensification of what has been termed “regionalization” – the process of economic integration that is driven from the bottom up by private actors such as firms. On the other hand, NAFTA has not led to greater “regionalism” meaning the state-led efforts to deepen regional integration through the fostering of other formal mechanisms to support institutionalized cooperation and collective action.
It may be suggested that the unwillingness on the part of the United States to delegate its sovereignty, with regard to both foreign relations and its domestic economic policies stands as a significant stumbling block to a deepening of North American regional cooperation. Notwithstanding, there has been a recent move towards acknowledging NAFTA as a potential source to solving pressing internal issues, such as those posed by illegal immigrants.
In recent months, an extroverted orientation has been educed by North American states, whereby all three NAFTA members have joined in negotiations for the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership and have sought to establish trade agreements with the European Union.
To date, North American regional cooperation is largely confined to trade. While NAFTA has been institutionalized, it has not ‘progressed’ into deeper cooperative arrangements in other policy domains. It may be suggested, moreover, that despite elite-driven efforts to deepen NAFTA, a North American regional community has not yet emerged. Given this lack of a regional ‘community’ or ‘identity’, it remains unlikely that North American regional cooperation will greatly exceed its present status.