Thinking North America

By Resnick, Philip | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Summer-Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Thinking North America

Resnick, Philip, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion

It was the Spanish part of the invention of America that liberated Western man from the fetters of a prison-like conception of his physical world, and it was the English part that liberated him from subordination to a Europe-centred conception of his historical world. In these two great liberations lies the hidden and true significance of American history.

--Edmundo O'Gorman, The Invention of America (1)

What exactly does it mean to be a North American? Europeans have been engaged in a long-running debate about the meaning and nature of Europe, not only in the last 50 or 60 years with the emergence of the European Union but for many centuries before. Does it make sense to engage similarly with the question of North America's identity?

Globalization has spawned a Series of continental economic blocs. The European Economic Community, from which the European Union has evolved, was the first to emerge. It has been followed by the ASEAN grouping in Southeast Asia; the Canada--U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA), subsequently extended to Mexico through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); and Mercosur in the southern cone of South America.

The FTA and NAFTA have brought in their wake a strengthening of economic integration within North America. To be sure, American investment in both Canada and Mexico goes back to the second half of the 19th century. But capital flows--in some cases into as well as out of the United States--have grown by leaps and bounds over the past two decades. The movement of population, both across the U.S.'s border with Canada and much more strikingly across its border with Mexico, has catapulted dramatically. In the Canadian case, the main original influx of settlers on the English Canadian side came from inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies fleeing the American Revolution. Subsequently, the balance of population exchange has tended to favour the United States over Canada, but with significant numbers moving in each direction. In the Mexican case, growing migration to the United States, especially in recent decades, has helped fuel American economic prosperity while simultaneously provoking a polarizing debate about the consequences of that migration for American national identity.

At the same time, 9/11 and its aftermath have raised questions of security to a continent-wide level--as manifested, for example, in the Security and Prosperity Partnership first proposed by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives in 2004--while simultaneously provoking vigorous opposition from those concerned about both civil liberties and national sovereignty. Political leaders have paid greater symbolic attention to North America, with three-way summits and bilateral exchanges of visits (e.g., between Canadian and Mexican heads of government) happening far more frequently than before. This suggests the need to take North America seriously as a subject of reflection--and not only from the economic or security point of view.


Let me turn to the question of possible commonalities among the three North American countries. The question has been rarely posed in terms of North America per se, but it has been evoked on a number of occasions where the Americas as a whole are concerned. Back in 1932, Herbert Bolton gave his presidential address to the American Historical Association--meeting in Toronto, interestingly enough--on the topic, "Do the Americas Have a Common History?" The theme sparked a vigorous debate over the following two decades, with most commentators rejecting the argument that there was a common cultural, economic or political pattern to the development of the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking parts of the Americas on the one hand and the largely English-speaking parts on the other. (2)

But this did not put paid to the discussion. In the 1990s, J.H. Elliott, a leading British scholar of Spain and the Spanish Empire, argued that despite obvious differences, there were certain commonalities to the New World societies that came to be created in the Americas in the aftermath of European conquest and settlement. …

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