FOUR years ago Canada overcame its longstanding reservations about joining the Organization of American States (OAS). Canada's significance as a hemispheric actor expanded further when it insisted that incipient free-trade talks between the United States and Mexico become a three-way negotiation toward the North American Free Trade Agreement. Canadian participation in NAFTA gives the country a potentially pivotal role in shaping future trade and investment arrangements across the Americas.
To be sure, Canada's policies in the hemisphere will be guided mainly by its own interests - including its relationship with the US, its multifaceted ties to Caribbean countries, the small but growing trade and capital movements with Latin American nations, and the problems caused by illicit drugs, migration, refugee flows. But Canada also has the opportunity to establish a broader role for itself. Canadian initiatives in key areas could help energize efforts to structure more cooperative and constructive relations in the Western Hemisphere.
The time is ripe for such initiatives. There is today substantial convergence of interests among the US, Canada, and Latin America, and a joint stake in closer economic and political links. Democratic politics (if not always pursued in practice) have become the regional norm; virtually every economy is market-driven and open to foreign trade and investment; and inter-American institutions have grown stronger in recent years.
Canada can contribute most by providing leadership on important issues that are not receiving high-quality attention and by tackling problems that are not being adequately addressed. Canada's influence will come less from its political or economic muscle (although it certainly has some to flex) than from its ability to formulate practical proposals that reflect its own values and preferences. Canada can provide such leadership on a variety of issues. It already is doing so on some.
Canada can push harder, for example, to make the OAS an effective instrument for advancing democracy and human rights in the hemisphere. Canada contributed importantly to establishing the OAS's new Unit for Democracy; it is well-placed to press for upgrading the Unit's still uncertain mandate and functions.
Canada could expand efforts to encourage other governments to revamp inter-American security. The current system of treaties and institutions, which has never worked well, is now obsolete, serving no serious purposes; it may even be harmful. Since Canada does not participate in the regional security system and has nothing directly to lose or gain, it can take initiatives other governments cannot.
Ottawa could become more actively engaged in discussions about the future of hemispheric trade arrangements, especially the role that NAFTA might assume in building a regional free-trade system, and in the interim, in assisting Caribbean and Central American countries. Clearly, the US - with its gargantuan market and extensive trade ties in the hemisphere - will eventually drive whatever decisions are made. What is crucially lacking now, however, are ideas and proposals to serve as a basis for consultation and debate. There is room for Canadian initiative, particularly given the country's free-trade experience with the US, which may contain lessons for the rest of the region.
Canadian leadership could also promote greater scientific and technical cooperation within the Americas. This is an area where Canada and the US are enormously well-endowed compared to other hemispheric nations, and could contribute to building badly needed individual and institutional capacities to confront a wide range of developmental problems: environmental deterioration, low agricultural productivity, poorly performing health and education services, and many others. Canada already does a good deal in this area; its International Development Research Centre is a model for promoting global scientific progress. It could do more, however, including prompting the US to expand its lagging efforts.
Canada cannot single-handedly reshape inter-American relations. It can, however, make a decisive contribution on several issues - by firmly taking the initiative, by pressing its ideas, and by consistently making good sense. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.