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Debunking the North American Union Conspiracy Theory

The North American Union, an increasingly popular conspiracy theory about a group of shadowy international "elites" who are planning to "replace the United States" with a transnational government, is a manifestation of xenophobia that would do the John Birch Society proud.
 
 
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Just what is the North American Union (NAU)?

There are several ways to answer that question. First, the NAU is an increasingly popular conspiracy theory about a group of shadowy and mostly nameless international "elites" who are planning to "replace the United States" -- in the words of Jerome Corsi, a key figure in the SwiftBoat Veterans for Truth project and a leading NAU conspiracist -- with a transnational government. The theory holds that the borders between Mexico, Canada and the United States are in the process of being erased, covertly, by a group of "globalists" whose ultimate goal is to replace national governments in D.C., Ottawa and Mexico City with a European-style political union and a bloated EU-style bureaucracy.

The North American Union story is an offspring of the John Birch Society right, with its attendant xenophobia and paranoia. It comes complete with a shadowy international cabal intent on stabbing decent, hard-working Americans in the back -- Dolchstoss! Articles and websites condemning the NAU flourish in that political space where right- and left-wing populism become indistinguishable, along with a dozen other fundamentally reactionary theories of what's really going on with our contemporary political economy.

To fully understand the growing fascination with the NAU in various corners of the internet, one has to view it also as a cultural phenomenon; it's an entirely logical reaction to a process of corporate-driven global integration that feeds into Americans' very real and wholly valid economic anxieties. As David Moberg recently noted, Americans, "by a margin of 46 percent to 28 percent, [believe] that trade deals have harmed the United States," and four times as many people surveyed by Pew said U.S. trade deals had lowered wages than the number who believed the deals had raised them. According to Public Citizen, opponents of NAFTA-style trade deals picked up 37 seats over defenders of the status quo during last year's midterms.

But, despite that political landscape, one of the first things the new Democratic majority did when it got into power was cut a new " Grand Bargain" with the White House to push through more of the same kind of trade deals. As David Sirota pointed out, the Democratic leadership did it in secret, behind closed doors. And it did it over the objections of many of the freshman lawmakers that gave them their majority in the first place.

With that as a backdrop, it should come as no surprise that people tend to look for a wizard working behind the curtain. The idea that shadowy forces beyond our perception are really in charge of steering the most powerful country in the world is reinforced every time a bipartisan "trade" deal with little or no support gets jammed through Congress.

Ultimately, though, the answer to the question "What is the NAU?" is this: It is absolutely nothing. The NAU exists only as a proposal contained in one of a thousand academic and/or wonky papers published each year that advocate all manner of idealistic but ultimately unrealistic approaches to social, economic and political problems. Most of these get passed around in their own circles and eventually filed away and forgotten by junior staffers in congressional offices. Some of these papers, however, become touchstones for the conspiracy-minded and form the basis of all kinds of unfounded fears.

Such is the case with the monograph, " Building a North American Community," which was produced by a group of eggheads at the Council on Foreign Relations and their counterparts in Mexico and Canada. It calls for a North American economic union to stretch from Canada's northern border to Mexico's southernmost point. It would basically be a customs union -- similar to the old European Community before it became the European Union -- with expedited travel between countries, a single market with standardized external tariffs, etc.

One should never say "never," but barring a remarkable change in all three countries' political cultures (but most importantly that of the United States), the kind of formal North American political union described by the theory's proponents has zero chances of getting off the ground any time in the foreseeable future.

A kernel of truth

I am the last person in the world to argue that there's no reason to worry about the push for more and more regional economic and security integration. At its heart, as is always the case with these kind of dark plots, are some real dots. The analyses go off the rails when those dots are connected.

For those of us who have spent years trying to raise awareness of what's really going on in the movement to blanket the earth in "free trade" deals -- geared as they are more towards compelling countries to deregulate and protecting investors than by any genuine desire to free up trade -- it's somewhat satisfying to see new interest being paid to an issue that gets far too little attention. Like other conspiracies, the problem with the North American Union is that it is a distraction; it represents a massive energy drain.

The NAU monograph explicitly rejects an EU-style political union and the kind of supernational institutions that have grown up like mushrooms in Brussels. One of the principles that guided the committee that drafted the proposal was that the NAU would not resemble the EU:

North America is different from other regions of the world and must find its own cooperative route forward. A new North American community should rely more on the market and less on bureaucracy, more on pragmatic solutions to shared problems than on grand schemes of confederation or union, such as those in Europe. We must maintain respect for each other's national sovereignty.

Despite that rather clear statement of principle -- and the fact that the paper lays out a series of recommendations that do not include the creation of some new continental supergovernment -- it does call for new "dispute" resolution mechanisms, the free flow of people between the United States and Canada (but not between Mexico and its northern neighbors as long as a large disparity between workers' incomes remains) and a unionwide regulatory framework.

Another "dot" that makes up the supposed NAU is the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP), a chat-shop for American, Canadian and Mexican leaders to meet annually and discuss common security and economic issues.

And then there's NAFTA, and the so-called "NAFTA Highway." These are not one but several truck "transit corridors" that backers hope will eventually connect Mexican, American and Canadian markets more effectively and facilitate trade. With construction funds authorized by Congress in dribs and drabs since 1997, and very little work completed south of the Mississippi, it's unclear whether the roads will ever be more than a waste of a few hundred million in taxpayer funds.

Robert Pastor, an academic specializing in elections at American University and one of the authors of the NAU proposal, also suggested the adoption of a common currency, like the Euro. That suggestion, however, wasn't included in the NAU "recommendations."

The context in which these marginally related dots emerged is an important reason why they've taken on a sinister air in many people's minds. NAFTA was part of a larger push for legal and regulatory "harmonization" between the three countries of North America. Business groups and other "trade" lobbyists have in fact advocated greater consistency in North America's regulatory environment, and that always means decreasing, not increasing, labor, environmental, workplace and other standards. It is not the highest common denominator that backers want to see spread far and wide.

Make no mistake, I've shed blood opposing corporate trade deals like NAFTA and the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and there are very real and very significant problems with the push toward harmonization and the relentless assault on national sovereignty represented by the arm-twisting that goes into forcing a trade "consensus." Construction of key parts of the "NAFTA highway" have raised serious environmental concerns. We don't need to expand NAFTA or the other institutions of international commerce; we need a pause in the march towards global (or in this case, regional) economic integration, not more of the same.

And Canadian activists like Maude Barlow of the Council for Canadians have warned for some time that the SPP is part of a push, financed by Canadian and U.S. corporate think tanks, to essentially bring an end to Canada's social welfare state through regional integration. (More detail can be found in this PDF posted by the Council of Canadians.)

The right stuff

These, and a number of other concerns, are entirely valid. But the NAU story is a creature of the far right, and, as such, those who have "connected the dots" have done so according to their ideological preferences. The North American Union they've conjured up comes with the assumptions embraced by the coterie of wing-nuts who have promoted it.

Chief among them is World Net Daily, the " archconservative news site" responsible for such hard-hitting journalism as its recent exposé, " Soy is making kids 'gay'" (no, I'm not making that up). In addition to SwiftBoat vet Corsi, right-wing talk radio hosts like Sean Hannity and CNN's reliably nativist Lou Dobbs have featured stories on the imminent arrival of the NAU. Reactionary talker (and now CNN host) Glenn Beck lists it on his website as one of a dozen things that the un-named elites against whom he rails are using to stab good, hard-working Americans in the back.

While there are exceptions, most essays about the NAU are, like Corsi's now-famous treatise in the hard-right Human Events , intended to reinforce some of the most cherished right-wing narratives:

  • Multilateral diplomacy is inherently bad; dangerous
  • Americans' economic insecurity results from the machinations of "liberal elites" and corporate America has no responsibility whatsoever
  • Foreigners are always competitors and can never be trusted -- working on common issues is inherently bad; dangerous

While the word "agenda" appears three times in Corsi's essay, you won't find the words "corporate," "corporation" or "lobbyist." Only murkily identified "elites" are to blame, not the actors -- the K Street influence peddlers and Chamber of Commerce types; the smooth pundits with those cushy think tank sinecures and the corporate execs who get stacked up in their Gulf Stream jets circling Washington every time a new trade deal comes up for a vote -- who are really pushing the corporate "trade" agenda. That's consistent with the central deception of right-wing populism: it's not Big Business and the politicians in their pockets that are responsible for gaming a system in which upward mobility no longer exists; the world is actually run by tweed-jacketed college professors and the "useful idiots" in the human rights and environmental communities.

And, recently, the NAU myth has become tangled up in the already acrimonious immigration debate in the United States, although not in any coherent way (they are completely unrelated, but the NAU mythology appeals to immigration hardliners for obvious reasons).

A bright, shiny distraction

What is the difference, then, between the kinds of analysis of corporate-led globalization offered by progressives and what I describe as a conspiracy theory? After all, both share the basic premise that deep-pocketed elites are threatening to run roughshod over the democratic institutions enjoyed in most nation-states, and both posit that the process is at least somewhat stealthy. Both hold that global economic integration along the lines of what we've seen so far have redistributed wealth upward, from workers to investors (although those on the right tend not to express that in so many words).

The differences are fairly straightforward. First, while there's no question that business elites in all three countries have long pushed for greater economic integration, central to the NAU theory is that there are forces working behind the scenes to build a political union . Those are two very different things; it's more than a semantic point.

Second, there is a NAFTA treaty and there are institutions like the WTO, but there is no North American Union and, because of a political culture that still cherishes political (if not economic) self-determination, especially in the United States, the chance of a North American Union that resembles the conspiracy theories becoming a reality anytime in the foreseeable future are about as likely as my being named Miss Universe.

Ultimately, that's also because nobody is calling for a political union like the EU. Whereas critics of corporate globalization can "follow the money" and name the specific registered lobbyists pushing a trade deal, the NAU's alleged supporters are always abstract (except for those in the wonky world of academic and think tank circles where these ideas are at least discussed seriously). That's because they don't exist. Progressive critics of corporate globalization take issue with the product of the diplomacy that takes place in venues like the WTO; for NAU theorists, representatives of the three North American governments sitting down and discussing regional issues is cause for alarm -- never mind that nothing substantive has come of those talks.

Finally, creating an NAU would require piles of legislation: billions of dollars in new budget allocations, the creation of new agencies and new institutions and the revision (or enactment) of literally hundreds of laws governing all sorts of activities in the political economy. The NAU conspiracy theorists would have you believe the impossible: that all of that will be done under cover of the metaphorical dead of night, while Americans are sleeping, and nobody will notice until it's too late. That is, nobody but those who are "wide awake" enough to embrace their conspiratorial worldview.

Consider how Jerome Corsi describes the White House's role in the NAU:

"President Bush is pursuing a globalist agenda" … a "hidden agenda" that explains "the Bush administration's true open borders policy." "Secretly, the Bush administration is pursuing a policy to expand NAFTA politically" …"What the Bush administration truly wants is the free, unimpeded movement of people across open borders with Mexico and Canada" … "President Bush intends to abrogate U.S. sovereignty to the North American Union, a new economic and political entity which the president is quietly forming." "Secretly," "quietly," "hidden agenda," "true …policy" -- all are markers of what the political scientist Richard Hofstadter called The Paranoid Style in American Politics.

The truth is that none of the three governments on the continent have endorsed the idea of an NAU and none of the NPP's discussions are binding on the countries in any way. If there were a real movement to create an NAU in the form envisioned by the reactionary oddballs at WorldNetDaily -- there isn't -- it would quickly be rejected not only by most Americans, but also by every member of Congress who likes the idea of serving another term.

In the meantime, in the real world, those corporate Gulf Streams are about to circle D.C. again, as Congress debates giving Bush "fast-track" trade authority and the Chamber of Commerce looks to seal trade deals with South Korea, Colombia, Peru and Panama. And, as always, only a very small group of activists will be watching those deals progress. They're not as sexy as a secretive cabal of covert globalists trying to destroy America from within, but they are far bigger issues because they are real.

Pity that the NAU crowd won't be paying attention.

Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.

 
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