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The Canada-Mexico relationship: A view from inside the Beltway

Armand Peschard-Sverdrup


Photo: Office of the Prime Minister
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper participates in the August 2009 North American Leaders’ Summit in Guadalajara, Mexico with Felipe Calderón and Barack Obama.

It is puzzling for American commentators to see that despite promising trade, health and security ties, the Canada-Mexico relationship does not carry more weight in North America. Official visits planned over the next months will provide both Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderón an opportunity to thaw the relationship after the Canadian decision to impose visa requirements on Mexicans and to re-position the bilateral relationship on a more strategic track.

Trade and investment

The robust trading relationship between Canada and Mexico that emerged with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is on the rebound following the global economic recession that hit North America’s manufacturing sector hard, particularly the auto industry. According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in January 2010 surface transportation trade among the U.S., Canada and Mexico reached US$56.7 billion —an increase of 19.5 per cent compared to last year.

Canada and Mexico have repeatedly voiced their interest in enhancing North America’s economic competitiveness, but their call has too often fallen on deaf ears in Washington. The economic recession may have created the conditions that make it now advantageous to explore competitiveness more concretely —be it for the relationship between Canada and Mexico or among all three North American countries.

From a geo-strategic perspective, Washington prefers seeing Canadian investment in Mexico’s mining sector (representing roughly 70 per cent of all foreign investment in the sector) rather than live with sizable investments from China, which already has significant leverage over the U.S. economy.


Canada’s experience with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002–2003 and the government’s successful level of co-operation with Mexico and the United States in dealing with the H1N1 pandemic exhibited Canada’s leadership in the field of epidemiology, something Washington and Mexico welcomed at a time of crisis and uncertainty. After all, more Americans travel to Mexico and Canada than to any other foreign destination. Similarly, the United States and Mexico are, respectively, the number one and two destinations for Canadians travelling abroad —18 million visits to the United States and 1.1 million visits to Mexico in 2008.


Canada and Mexico have been co-operating on national and domestic security. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), along with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and Colombia’s National Police, is providing training to Mexico’s federal police investigators to support the fight against crime. The Canadian Armed Forces have also been relatively successful in engaging both the Mexican army and navy through the ongoing political-military dialogue that was established in 2006. Washington fully understands that the Mexican military feels more at ease with its Canadian counterpart for historical reasons dating back to the Mexican-American war of 1846.

The U.S. government recognizes that Canada can strengthen its bilateral security relationship with Mexico and provide greater technical assistance geared toward the institutional strengthening of Mexico’s judiciary and armed forces. Even though Ottawa and Washington have expressed interest in co-ordinating their work with Mexico on security issues, it has not yet materialized. Such co-ordination could optimize the technical assistance that both governments provide to Mexico and also avoid redundant or disjointed efforts.

Trilateralism as an opportunity

It appears that the current Canadian government views North American trilateralism as weakening its relationship with the U.S., as opposed to being complementary to solid bilateral ties with Washington and Mexico City. From a U.S. standpoint, trilateralism does not exclude strong bilateral dynamics and some issues can be pursued bilaterally, trilaterally and multilaterally.

The Canadian government has decided to disengage from the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America launched in 2005. In some Washington policy circles, this was seen as the result of mounting domestic political pressure against free trade and further integration. However, Canada did agree to meet annually under the framework of the North American Leaders’ Summit.

Canadian concern over trilateralism has also been reinforced by the fact that the Bush and Obama administrations have implemented harmonized security measures at its two borders —a policy that contrasts with the Harper government view that the northern border warrants a different approach. Harper’s push for a differentiated U.S. approach to border security was, irrespective of its merit, never an appealing option for Washington and in fact, it turned into somewhat of an irritant.

Some U.S. observers argue that the Harper administration is now even less interested in trilateralism than it was before Obama took office. This change in outlook may be attributed to Canada’s interest in protecting the Canada-U.S. relationship, particularly with a Democrat in the White House. The statements Obama made during the electoral campaign about renegotiating NAFTA and the introduction of the “Buy American” provision in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 both seemed to contribute to this vision.

Canada has not recognized Mexico’s strategic importance. Yet, not only do bilateral ties have great potential, but were they strong enough, they could also be used to leverage the relationship with the U.S. This approach could prove to be more effective than ever now that Washington grapples with the gradual shift in the world’s economic balance of power, which ultimately reduces the United States’ ability to project its influence in the hemisphere. This creates an opportunity for Canada —and even Mexico— to exhibit greater influence over the North American agenda. They could also assume a broader leadership role in the hemisphere acting as counterweights to countries such as China and Iran that are actively seeking to enhance their influence in the region.

Finally, viewed from the American perspective, the bilateral relationship between Canada and Mexico has ample opportunity to deepen and become much more strategic. Canada and Mexico could now turn their attention to two critically important issues on which they could co-operate to become bold leaders in North America: energy and the environment. This can be done irrespective of whether the White House and Democrats can overcome their ideological differences with Republicans on Capitol Hill to come to terms with initiatives that are substantial enough to actually make a difference.blue square

Armand Peschard-Sverdrup is a Senior Associate (Non-Resident) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and is President and CEO of the consultancy firm Peschard-Sverdrup and Associates.

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