For want of a single wire imported from Mexico, jet engines built by General Electric’s American workers in Ohio would fail to ignite. Nor would GE washing machines that are assembled in the United States function without printed circuit board assemblies from countries like the Philippines and China. Such imports — and thousands more — are vitally important to the 131,000 Americans who make those engines, washing machines, and other products of the GE Imagination. You’d think that Jeff Immelt, GE’s chairman and CEO, would be eager to point to the imported components that sustain his company’s American jobs. That Immelt would be eager to explain in such real-life terms, why international trade flows are so important to prosperity. But he isn’t.
Like President Barack Obama and many other U.S. business leaders, Immelt instead promotes the benefits of international trade using the language of mercantilism: trade is about creating American jobs, about promoting American exports. Pragmatic business leaders like Immelt and economic nationalists like Obama long ago have calculated that ordinary working Americans respond better to patriotic-sounding slogans than the simple truth about the connection between imports and exports. In Washington, D.C., exports are highly praised; imports are mentioned as little as possible.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, more enlightened European thinkers in cities like Stockholm, Geneva and Paris have been busy explaining to their publics the all-important connection between imported components and finished manufactured goods.
The contrast between how trade is being talked about differently on the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean helps illuminate why, on the American side, public support for international trade has deteriorated so sharply in recent years. Here’s what’s going on:
It was all smiles on Feb. 4, 2011, when President Barack Obama and Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, met at the White House. We have a “shared vision” to ensure that important border-security and trade issues receive top-level attention at the highest levels in both Washington, D.C. and Ottawa, the two leaders announced in a joint statement. The United States and Canada are “woven together like perhaps no other two countries in the world,” Obama enthused to reporters.
What a contrast with the rampant narcotics- and people smuggling along the the southern U.S.-Mexican border, which has become an open sore. More than $1 billion in goods crosses the 4,000-plus mile border every day. Canada is America’s number one export market. The United States exported more than $204 billion in U.S. goods were exported to Canada in 2009 (compared to $69 billion in U.S. goods exported to China that year), according to the most recent figures released by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. And the U.S. is Canada’s top destination, with 2009 exports of manufactured goods to the United States reaching $225 billion. That amounted to nearly three-quarters of all Canadian goods’ exports. As Harper stressed at the Feb. White House press conference, “We are true friends.”
But my, how the closest of friends can sometimes treat each other. Behind the smiles, there are awkward tensions over trade, and also very troublesome security issues along the U.S.-Canada border that Obama and Harper prefer to gloss over. This article focuses on three otherwise unrelated controversies that go beyond the normal tit-for-tat spats that inevitably crop up between even between the closest friendly nations. First, even though the U.S. enjoys its own preferential trade agreement with Canada (the North American Free Trade Agreement), the Obama White House has worked behind the scenes in the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations to exclude the Canadians from preferential access to other lucrative markets in Asia — a game that Ottawa also knows how play. Second, since 9/11 there have been increasing complaints from American importers and Canadian exporters over overly-stringent U.S. border controls that threaten jobs on both sides of the border. While the complaints began when George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office, they are intensifying in this third year of the Obama presidency.
But by far the most serious concerns involve organized criminal activities along one particular 12-mile stretch of the U.S.-Canada border that runs through 28,000 acres of the sovereign Akwesasne Mohawk Indian Territory. On the New York side, the Mohawks are in the United States; the northern part of the reservation is in parts of Ontario and Quebec. To evade high Canadian taxes on cigarettes, contraband cancer sticks are smuggled into Canada through this 12-mile hole in the border. Some come up from U.S. tobacco states like the Carolinas, but mostly the illegal smokes seem to come from factories right on the reservation itself. Beyond cigarettes, much of the ecstasy that floods the streets of New York and other East Coast cities also flows through the same smuggling routes. So much, that Canada has become the number one U.S. supplier of ecstasy, according to official reports. In return, American gangs such as Hell’s Angels have become Canada’s top supplier of cocaine, along with assault weapons. Asian triads and Eastern European mafias also look to this border hole to smuggle in drugs, prostitutes and other illegal aliens. While this is bad enough, it gets even worse. Terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah are also known to be familiar with the Akwesasne smuggling routes. The risk of terrorist activities is “high,” as a recent investigation by the Government Accountability Office noted.
To be sure, U.S.-and Canadian law enforcement and intelligence officials are trying as best they can to manage the mess. But evidence of strong leadership at the highest political levels is scanty at best. Despite their glowing assurances to the contrary that were uttered at the White House two months ago, it does not appear that either Obama or Harper is really focused on what it would take to plug the 12-mile hole in the border. Their biggest mutual failure: Neither leader has thought to reach out to help empower the sovereign Indian communities themselves to come up with a realistic plan to shut down the illegal activities, and replace them with viable economic alternatives.
Here’s what’s going on — and not going on.