A few recent headlines reveal the painfully inhumane, dangerously volatile state of U.S. relations with its own home region, the continent of North America. A record-breaking 2.76 million border crossings from Mexico filled homeless shelters to the bursting point in cities nationwide in 2022. This year, the possible cessation of Covid restrictions could allow tens of thousands more migrants, now huddling in the cold of northern Mexico, to surge across the border, as some are already able to do. Most of those refugees are Central Americans, fleeing cities ravaged by gang warfare and farms devastated by climate change. The inept U.S. response to such a disturbing world ranges from the Biden administration’s nervously biding its time without a plan in sight to Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s cutting an ugly scar through a pristine national forest by building a four-mile border “wall” out of rusted shipping containers (which he now has to dismantle).
Meanwhile, miserable millions in Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince are struggling to survive in the world’s worst slums, ravaged by recent earthquakes and roiled by endemic gang violence. While the U.N. Security Council debated launching an international military intervention to address what its secretary-general called “an absolutely nightmarish situation,” the U.S. expelled another 26,000 Haitian asylum seekers without hearings in 2022. The harshness of that was caught in September 2021 when Border Patrol horsemen used “unnecessary force” to herd Haitians back across the Rio Grande. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, Washington’s recent economic sanctions on communist Cuba — imposed by Trump and maintained by Biden — have sparked the flight to the U.S. of 250,000 refugees last year, more than 2% of the island’s population.
Farther south, after years of U.S.-led economic blockades and at least one Washington-sponsored coup, Venezuela has hemorrhaged 6.8 million of its citizens in what the U.N. called “the largest refugee and migrant crisis worldwide.” In 2018, only 100 Venezuelans crossed the southern U.S. border. In 2022, that number was an unprecedented 188,000. And keep in mind that all of this is likely to seem but a trickle in the years to come when, as the World Bank warned recently, a human flood may head north as the devastation of climate change uproots as many as four million people annually from Mexico and Central America.
The Fundamentals of Geopolitical Change
As bad as this might seem, there are some faint signs that, however fitfully, the U.S. could at least be moving toward a more positive relationship with its home continent of North America — which includes Canada, Mexico, Central America, and the island nations of the Caribbean. And it can’t happen soon enough since, within a decade, the growth of a multipolar world will slowly replace Washington’s dreams of global hegemony with multinational alliances like the European Union or rising regional powers like Brazil, India, Nigeria, and Turkey.
At the broadest level, geopolitical change is eroding the capacity of any would-be hegemon, China included, to dominate much of the globe the way Washington did for the past 75 years. As the U.S. share of the global economy declined from a whopping 50% in 1950 to just 13% in 2021, its world leadership followed a similar downward trajectory, a process not unlike what Great Britain experienced in the decades before World War I. This relative economic and imperial decline is now undercutting Washington’s long-sought goal of maintaining its dominance over Eurasia, the epicenter of global power. It did so for decades via a tripartite geopolitical strategy — controlling the continent’s western end thanks to NATO and its east via a vast chain of military bases along the Pacific littoral, while working assiduously to block either China or Russia from achieving any sort of full-scale dominance in Central Asia.
Dream on, as they say. In this century, with its disastrous wars, Washington has already lost much of its influence in both the Greater Middle East and Central Asia, as once-close allies (Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey) go their own ways. Meanwhile, China has gained significant control over Central Asia, while its recent ad-hoc alliance with an ever-more-battered Russia only fortifies its growing geopolitical power on the Eurasian continent.
Although the Ukraine war has momentarily strengthened the NATO alliance, the unilateral U.S. retreat from Afghanistan in 2021, ending a disastrous 20-year war, forced European leaders for the first time in half a century to consider what life and NATO might be like on a changing planet. They are only now beginning to imagine what taking charge of their own defense would mean perhaps a decade from now, with most U.S. military forces withdrawn from Europe. For the first time in memory, in other words, we could truly find ourselves on another planet.
At Eurasia’s eastern end, Beijing and Washington seem to be squaring off ominously for an armed showdown over Taiwan that — as laid out in a six-phase scenario by the Reuters news service — would likely destroy that island’s cities, disrupt world trade, and devastate much of East Asia. Given Beijing’s strategic advantage of simple proximity to that island and the likelihood of heavy U.S. naval losses in such a conflict, Washington would, in the end, probably blink and retreat from the “first island chain” (Japan-Taiwan-Philippines) to a “second island chain” (Japan-Guam-Palau) or even a “third island chain” (Alaska-Hawaii-New Zealand).
Even without such a disastrous future conflict, which could of course go nuclear, Washington’s position in Eurasia is already beginning to fade. Elsewhere in the world, its influence in South America has fallen strikingly since the Cold War of the last century, while China, capitalizing on a now half-century-old alliance with independent states in Africa, has become the leading power on that continent.
The Rise of Regional Powers
Amid Washington’s fading global hegemony, its most lasting legacy, the liberal international order, has indeed fostered economic growth strengthening a set of regional powers known as the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) or, more recently, the “13 new emerging economies” (including Indonesia, Nigeria, and South Africa). Their rise is likely to prevent either Washington or Beijing from exercising anything akin to the kind of global dominion of the imperial age or the Cold War era that followed. Instead, regional associations like the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the African Union are likely to grow ever stronger.
With its own global power fading fast, the United States will undoubtedly become a far more regional power. While some Washington insiders might see this trend as at best a retreat or at worst a defeat, it’s actually an opportunity to fundamentally reconsider relations with our home region, North America.
The current U.S. posture toward this continent is a twisted knot of contradictions, the bitter legacy of a fraught history. For more than a century, there has been a striking duality in Washington’s relations with its home region, marked by amity in the north and ambiguity or even hostility to the south, particularly Central America and the Caribbean. After breaking Britain’s decades of informal imperial rule over the whole of Latin America at the dawn of the twentieth century, Washington tried to control its southern neighbors with repeated military interventions — taking Puerto Rico in 1898 and seizing the Panama Canal Zone in 1903, while sending Marines to occupy Caribbean countries like Haiti for decades at a time.
In a bold attempt to change its imperial posture, President Franklin Roosevelt adopted a “good neighbor policy” in the 1930s, briefly abjuring armed occupations. Building on that goodwill, in 1947 Washington forged a mutual defense pact, the Rio Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, with some two-dozen countries in this hemisphere, including Mexico, most of Central America, and all of South America. The Cold War, however, soon brought a surge of controversial CIA interventions — the toppling of Guatemala’s democratic reformist government in 1954, the failed invasion of Cuba in 1961, the occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1965, and a series bloody covert wars in Central America during the 1980s.
Even now, the social trauma from those secret wars, marked by massacres and U.S.-financed death squads, is evident in criminal gangs like MS-13 whose 60,000 estimated members now terrorize the northern tier of Central America, forcing many thousands of their victims to flee for the relative safety of the U.S. border. Instead of a collaborative effort to address an increasingly horrific regional brew of endemic violence and climate change, Washington has reacted ever more repressively, while mobilizing border patrols in a futile effort to seal off its southern frontier, as if it had no role in, or responsibility for, the fate of its neighbors.
To the north, by contrast, Canada provides a model for regional collaboration. After tense relations throughout the nineteenth century marked by several abortive U.S. invasions of Canada, Washington, starting in 1903, negotiated its boundary disputes with Ottawa. Those arbitrations became a model for modern international relations, while winning Secretary of State Elihu Root a Nobel Peace Prize. To cap off that process, in 1909 the two countries established the International Joint Commission, which has, for 110 years, amicably settled some 50 disputes, a few of which could otherwise have become quite serious.
As allies in World War I and World War II, the two nations have also developed a military alliance that has only deepened over the decades. Not only was Canada a co-founder of NATO in 1949, but at the height of the Cold War the countries merged their continental defenses by forming the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). As a fully binational command, with senior officers from both air forces, NORAD has become the strongest American alliance, charged with the aerial and, since 2006, maritime defense of the entire North American continent. Building on such resilient military ties, in 1994, the two nations joined Mexico in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which, though modified slightly under President Trump, has sustained close commercial ties among those three countries for the past 30 years.
Beyond NAFTA and NORAD
As a legacy of its troubled hemispheric history, however, U.S. relations with the rest of North America are a tangle of contradictions that only complicate painfully persistent problems. Yet there are now obvious solutions, using this country’s relationships with Canada and the European Union as models, that could begin to transcend the ever more unnerving irrationality of armed borders, asymmetric power, and punitive policies towards poorer southern neighbors.
In the wake of World War II and 1,000 years of almost endless warfare that made Europe the world’s most bloodstained continent, visionary new leaders moved step by step toward forming a regional confederation that would replace conflict with cooperation. That European Union (EU), in turn, would create unprecedented levels of productivity and prosperity (until, at least, Britain withdrew from the EU and, in more recent times, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine). Although all of the 27 member states retain their full sovereignty, the EU executive commission and parliament have, since the Lisbon Pact was signed in 2007, taken charge of common concerns for their 500 million citizens, including environmental policy, economic development, human rights, border security, and migration within the union.
To resolve its growing problems, the whole of North America – including Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean countries — could clearly benefit from a parallel union among its 23 sovereign states and their 590 million people. In many ways, the task should be easier than Europe’s. While the EU has 13 “official languages,” a North American Union would need only three — English, French, and Spanish — fewer than tiny Switzerland.
As in Europe once upon a time, the primary barrier to North American integration is the economic inequality between north and south. Since its introduction in 1994, NAFTA has fundamentally reshaped North American economic relations, increasing cross-border investment and tripling regional trade among Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. And here’s one surprising post-NAFTA development: between 1994 and 2007, undocumented Mexican migration to the United States only grew; since 2008, however, there has been a reverse flow “as more Mexican-born immigrants began leaving the United States than arriving.”
Hoping to imitate this success, in 2000 Congress approved the U.S.-Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership and, five years later, adopted the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). But special interests hobbled CAFTA from the outset, maximizing the negatives and muting the positives of such a multilateral accord, while its Caribbean counterpart has had, at best, little impact.
The Search for Solutions
With examples of both successful and failed agreements in this hemisphere, improved NAFTA-like pacts with the Caribbean and Central America could be negotiated. Given a genuine investment program aimed at more equitable economic integration, Washington could conceivably reduce, however gradually, the glaring economic inequality between the U.S. and Canada and their southern neighbors.
With such economic fundamentals in place, those countries could then move toward European Union-style shared governance, so as to better navigate the growing climate crisis and its threat of demographic disaster. Through genuine regional collaboration, as well as a redefinition of “defense” (as in Defense Department) as greater protection from onrushing natural disasters, Washington could become the epicenter of a multinational union.
As its population continues to age, with seniors expected to outnumber those under 18 by 2034, the United States will, in fact, have a pressing need for new migrant flows from the labor-rich nations of Central America and the Caribbean — as the Biden White House suggested in its June 2022 Los Angeles Declaration on Migration. And as climate change brings raging tropical storms to the Caribbean and devastating drought to Central America’s northern triangle, Canada and the U.S. will be able to mobilize their legions of skilled scientists to search for environmental solutions that will allow rural populations to shelter more safely in place.
Finally, the massive U.S. defense budget, still dedicated to Washington’s dying dreams of global dominance (and the corporate weapons makers that go with it), could be redirected toward a new kind of regional defense. Its focus would be coping with a continent-wide eruption of climate-related disasters, including ever more intense droughts, floods, fires, storms, and the displaced populations that will go with them.
Managing such common concerns equitably (and effectively) will mean developing limited areas of shared sovereignty on the model of the European Union. To create a successor to the long-moribund Organization of American States (OAS), Ottawa and Washington could lead North America’s 23 sovereign nations in forming a permanent secretariat, akin to the European Commission.
Balancing national sovereignty with regional solidarity, such an empowered transnational body might then exercise executive authority over areas appropriate for shared governance, including civil defense, environmental disaster, economic growth, and labor flows. And should such a union prove effective, it could be expanded, much as the EU has been, until it incorporates the entire Western Hemisphere, supplanting or revitalizing the now comatose OAS.
By taking the necessary steps beyond CAFTA, NAFTA, and NORAD, Washington could help lead its North American neighbors, roiled by the ravages of climate change, toward a more perfect union. In the process, this entire hemisphere would ultimately become a far safer haven for its share of humanity in the troubled decades to come.
Alfred W. McCoy, a TomDispatch regular, is the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power. His newest book is To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change (Dispatch Books).