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Toward a North American Idea

Professor Robert Pastor

Robert Pastor's new book, "The North American Vision," addresses the fears of closer connections with our neighbors expressed by the right and the left. (Photo: Jeff Watts)

If there is a quintessential North American, it is Robert Pastor.

From his graduate school days at Harvard with his friend Carlos Salinas, the future president of Mexico, to his work as National Security advisor on Latin American affairs, to advising the 1992 Clinton campaign on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and status as founding director of the Carter Center’s Latin American and Caribbean program, he has devoted his career to closer ties on the continent.

Now, the School of International Service professor and director of AU’s Center for North American Studies and Center for Democracy and Election Management, has written a new book, the culmination of his decades of work promoting the strategic importance of such ties for the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

In The North American Idea: A Vision of a Continental Future (Oxford University Press), Pastor addresses the fear of closer connections with our neighbors expressed by both right-wing politicians (loss of sovereignty) and unions (loss of jobs). His work has made him a favorite target of cable shouters Lou Dobbs, Bill O’Reilly, and Pat Buchanan, as well as Jerome Corsi, best known for a book attacking 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry.

Conquering the Stereotypes

The North American Idea also examines the stereotypes we hold about each other — Canadians and Mexicans see Americans as arrogant, Americans view Canadians as boring, Canadians and Americans see most Mexicans as poor, illegal immigrants and a small minority as rich and corrupt — and how our perceptions can harm our interests. Press obsession with Mexican drug violence, for example, limits our knowledge of that economically vital and culturally rich country.

“The United States increasingly behaves like an ADD power,” Pastor says, explaining why he felt compelled to write this, his 17th book. “It can only focus on the urgent and at one thing at a time and it therefore neglects the important. I cannot think of a more important set of issues than those related to our two closest neighbors, Canada and Mexico. Not just because our neighbors should be treated with respect, but more importantly because they have a huge impact on us in ways that we don’t fully grasp.

“Everybody knows that Canada and Mexico are very dependent on us. As much as 40 percent of their gross product depends on trade with the U.S. So almost the slightest change in the economy of the United States throws Canada and Mexico into a tizzy. What we don’t grasp is the degree to which we’ve become dependent on them. That in effect 36 percent of our total trade with the world is just with our two neighbors, that the two largest markets for the United States are not China or Japan — they are Canada and Mexico. Our two largest sources of energy imports are not Saudi Arabia and Venezuela; they are not hostile nations from afar, as the recent presidential debate suggests, they’re Canada and Mexico. So we depend on them as well.”

We have a stake in our neighbors’ economic well-being. In Mexico, where we send three times the exports that we do to China, a major impact is drug trafficking. A downturn in Mexico’s economy can also mean an increased flow of undocumented workers.

“So I view the construction of a new North American Community as of the greatest interest to the U.S., and I am distressed that our leaders utterly fail to understand that or see it, that it’s not even part of the national debate, and that the national debate on this subject has largely been taken over by a small group of conspiratorial extremists who see any cooperation with our neighbors as a diminution of American sovereignty, which is totally absurd,” Pastor says.

NAFTA and the Political Debate

Pastor is a central figure in the realization of NAFTA. So he is understandably distressed that NAFTA became a piñata during the 2008 presidential nomination campaign, when both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama expressed skepticism about the agreement in a debate before the Texas and Ohio primaries.

Perhaps the most serious setback was 9/11.

“Our cars are not American cars, they’re North American cars,” he says. “They’re made in all three countries right now. And if we put new borders on the borders, which we’ve done since 9/11, intentionally and unintentionally, we’re increasing the cost of our own cars. We’re hurting ourselves.”

Another serious post-9/11 effect: tourism dropped by a third. Considering that two-thirds of all tourists who visit the United States come from Canada and Mexico, that’s a very tangible effect.

But the biggest problem the implementation of NAFTA has faced since it began in 1994, Pastor believes, is a failure of leadership.

“Our three governments have not stepped up to the plate and developed a comprehensive strategy to build on NAFTA and more importantly to address the new North American agenda, which is different from the normal trade and investment agenda of NAFTA,” Pastor says. “The fact that we’re debating NAFTA shows how out of touch we are with the changing agenda. The agenda today is a transnational agenda. It’s an agenda of migration, of energy, of transportation, of infrastructure, of taxes.

It’s an agenda of how three countries can change their policies so as to benefit all three peoples more. We have utterly failed to address that agenda. We have utterly failed to address the problems of modernization on the border, of cooperation among the three countries. There has been no imagination, there has been no leadership, and there has been no idea. There’s been nobody saying, let’s focus on this.”

Moving Forward

With The North American Idea, Pastor has written a book that manages to be both concise and weighty. With only about 200 pages of narrative, it is chock full of data, including tables and appendices.

Writing the book, Pastor noted in the book’s acknowledgments, and in an interview, was a personal struggle. In March 2010, while he was editing the third draft, he learned that he had advanced stage colorectal cancer. The probability was that he had six months to live.

Now, his doctor calls him an “outlier.”

“I just gave my book to my oncologist and thanked her for helping me get through the last three or four drafts and getting it published,” he says. “I’ve been very lucky so far, but it affects one’s perspective on life. What I have, there’s no cure. So you just have to deal with it. My philosophy is to redouble my efforts to go on with everything else.”

Recently, Pastor flew across the continent to Los Angeles to begin a book tour that would take him from LA to San Francisco, to Chicago to Boston.

On October 5, from 3:30 to 5 p.m. at AU, Pastor will join Jorge Castañeda, Mexico’s former foreign minister and coauthor with Pastor of Limits to Friendship: The United States and Mexico, in a book presentation and discussion moderated by SIS dean James Goldgeier. The event will be in the SIS Founders Room.

Pastor and Castañeda will be available to sign copies of their books.