Election 2020

Threats and Border Walls Are Destroying the United States’ Biggest Strategic Advantage

Restoring a common purpose with Canada and Mexico is the lowest-hanging fruit in U.S. foreign policy.

This article is part of Election 2020: What We’re Missing, FP’s series of daily takes by leading global thinkers on the most important foreign-policy issues not being talked about during the presidential election campaign.

Mexican then-President Enrique Pena Nieto, U.S. President Donald Trump, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sign a revised trade agreement on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, on Nov. 30, 2018.
Mexican then-President Enrique Pena Nieto, U.S. President Donald Trump, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sign a revised trade agreement on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, on Nov. 30, 2018. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

It’s a truism: Bounded by oceans and friendly neighbors, the United States is blessed by geography. Few others could afford the luxury of isolationism as the United States did for two centuries, and no superpower has ever been so secure. If anything, it’s the United States that has historically caused trouble in its backyard. As the Mexican General Porfirio Díaz once complained: “Poor Mexico—so far from God, so close to the United States.”

Today, the United States is once again proving a bad neighbor. President Donald Trump, when he was a candidate, called Mexicans “criminals” and “rapists” and the country an “enemy.” By now, he has turned the southern U.S. border into an international disgrace. He called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “dishonest and weak” and invoked spurious national security grounds—as if Canada were planning an attack—to slap tariffs on Canadian steel. Now the shoe seems to be on the other foot: Canada has closed its border to Americans because of U.S. pandemic failures; in Mexico, the mayor of the border city Juárez has asked the national government to do the same.
It’s all so self-defeating—consolidating North America would create a strategic advantage with a monumental payoff.

It’s all so self-defeating. Consolidating North America would be a strategic advantage with a monumental payoff for the United States.

Closer cooperation with Mexico and Canada would provide strategic depth for the United States in dealing with illegal immigration and terrorism. Californians experiencing rolling blackouts would benefit from a regional energy grid. Businesses in the United States need both high-skilled and low-skilled labor that a coordinated North American immigration policy could provide. Affordable labor in Mexico can help secure supply chains close to home and removed from exposure to China—for example, to ensure the availability of medical supplies during pandemics. A common front by Canada, Mexico, and the United States would be a formidable force in trade negotiations, and an international standard-setter.

These mutually beneficial policies would also mitigate the least discussed and most detrimental potential threat to the United States: Mexico’s descent into lawlessness, violence, and instability due to the drug cartel corruption that is poisoning the country. Local politicians and journalists have been routinely targeted for 15 years, but the arrest earlier this month of Mexican former Defense Minister General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda in Los Angeles on drug and money laundering charges should be a wake-up call to Washington. Not only do Americans, as the main consumers of cartel-supplied drugs, have a moral responsibility and public-health interest in working with Mexico on this issue, but an urgent national security rationale as well. Canada has much to offer in helping the United States help Mexico.

Working together to strengthen North America as a common foundation for security and prosperity is the biggest opportunity the United States is missing—and one with the greatest penalty for inattention or failure. The next administration should take note.

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake

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