Robert Zoellick is a fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center and the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
On Saturday, Mexico will inaugurate a new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, just as President Obama is setting course for his second term. Obama’s administration is focused on more distant lands — rebalancing toward Asia and struggling with turmoil in the Middle East. Yet this week’s meeting of the two men highlights an opportunity for the United States to strengthen its continental base and leverage the dynamism of the Western Hemisphere as part of a global strategy.
The North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 was the United States’ first international innovation outside the traditional Cold War security system. Over the past 20 years, U.S. attention to North America has been frequently diverted — but NAFTA and the partnership among Mexico, Canada and the United States are now starting to reach their potential.
This is an excellent time to deepen ties. The NAFTA countries should invest in a North American community that would make each stronger at home and around the world. For the United States, a more prosperous, growing, populous, integrated, energy-secure and democratic continental base would enhance private-sector possibilities and national power.
The United States and Canada are already demonstrating the ability to lower energy costs, strengthen energy security and cut the U.S. trade deficit while stimulating other industries. President-elect Peña Nieto has hinted that it is time for Mexico to draw investment and innovation to its energy sector. Mexican sensitivities about energy require respectful handling, but the possible gains for Mexico and its North American partners are striking.
As wages rise in East Asia, improved productivity in Mexico and quicker transport at lower cost are strengthening manufacturing on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. Throughout the financial crisis, Canadian and Mexican fiscal, monetary and banking policies earned global praise, laying a foundation for a continental revival. Mexican and Canadian growth means those countries purchase more here.
With fewer illegal immigrants to the United States and better border security, Mexico and the United States may be able to achieve a politically acceptable and economically sensible immigration policy. While other advanced economies — and many developing ones — will struggle with aging and decreasing populations, North America could become a new type of rising power.
North Americans still face frustrating issues, notably drug trafficking and criminal networks. The new Mexican government needs to strengthen its judiciary and law enforcement, education and infrastructure. The United States and Canada have a strong interest in assisting it.
Canada and Mexico have become the United States’ democratic, economic and environmental partners at global meetings. This is a huge and underappreciated change from 20 years ago. This groundbreaking partnership of developed and developing countries could be the cornerstone of future coalitions the United States will need to build.