Toward a Continental System

The Greater Caribbean Basin: the future zone of US strategic focus. April 9, 2010. (David Mathews/Flickr)
The Greater Caribbean Basin: the future zone of US strategic focus. April 9, 2010. (David Mathews/Flickr)
The Greater Caribbean Basin: the future zone of US strategic focus. April 9, 2010. (David Mathews/Flickr)

The US has maintained complete dominance over the North American continent at least since the end of the 19th century and arguably since the year 1865. No foreign power has been able to establish a sustained foothold in North America and the Greater Caribbean Basin since the French puppet emperor of Mexico, Maximilian I, was executed during the American Civil War. The obvious exception of Soviet-backed Cuba, from 1962 onwards, and the great lengths the US went to remove and then contain the Castro regime, illustrate the strategic importance of such unchallengeable hegemony over the American near abroad.

This consolidation of the US’s near abroad closely parallels the consolidation of the American home front, which certain Conservative Realist policymakers, from Hamilton to Clay to Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt, strove to do through the adoption of the Constitution, the adoption of the American System, the preservation of the Union and the progressive reformation that each of those individuals respectively pursued. So American consolidation at home paralleled the rise of American dominance abroad. However, consolidation at home was closely paralleled by development at home, whereas domination abroad was not followed by the infrastructural, social and economic development of the young nation-state’s sphere of influence. Thus, the individual states surrounding the US were left to their own devices to develop while constrained under the US’s military and political dominance of the region. This cap on true political competition shackled policymakers in Canada, Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela to varying geopolitical fates, which in part explains the sheer difference in the current conditions of those states.

Canada, of course, had the best situation of all the neighboring states. Blessed by a British system of governance, vast resources and a reasonably homogenous population, and beset by no particularly harsh struggles, Canada was able to integrate effectively with the US as an attractive neighbor and trading partner—in fact, the biggest trading partner to the US today. The Canadians had already been cowed by the Americans in the War of 1812, after three failed but devastating attempts at invasion by the Americans. They made little pretense of nationalism against the US, and strove to integrate their economy and society with the colossus to the south.

Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela were not so lucky. Beset with the Spanish colonial tradition of a neo-feudal hacienda economy and society, possessing little to no manufacturing infrastructure (but being stricken by the resource curse endemic to many former colonies) and inhabiting tropical and semi-tropical lands more susceptible to disease, they were prey to the social corruption unfortunately common to most of the Latin American republics. Mexico, in particular, might have had an easier time integrating with the US had it not been for the perennial chaos it experienced in its northern border area. Pancho Villa exemplified this trend a century ago; the horrors of the drug wars exemplify it now. Cuba and Venezuela, further away and not directly bordering the US but still strategically significant for naval and commercial reasons, were always targets of US foreign policy, but were never party to a sustained commitment to shared economic development. The rise to power of socialist regimes in both countries during the Cold War further stalled any progress towards a Pan-American coalition or economic zone of which enterprising US politicians might have dreamt.

So now, we of the 21st century observe a curious phenomenon—a US, imperial in its domination of the northern half of its hemisphere and completely unable to effect modernizing change in its near abroad. Regimes sympathetic to its former greatest foe inhabit strategic naval points on the American Mediterranean; vast drug wars of untellable violence consume its southern neighbor, while corruption prevents that neighbor from weeding out the violence or stemming the flow of illegal migrants flooding across the northern border; meanwhile, Canada enjoys all the benefits of a free and orderly society, and exemplifies the benefits of partnership and solidarity of international neighborhood. Canada is integrated into the broader North American system, while Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela succumb to internal weaknesses without being fully let into the broader system.

The regional strategy the US ought to pursue to amend this iniquity, I think, can be put as follows: strive to make the US’s relationships with Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela as much like the US’s relationship with Canada as possible.

Clearly none of the relationships would or should ever actually mirror the US-Canada relationship, as, positivism be damned, national characteristics are real and relevant to the formulation of policy. That said there are a few basic characteristics of the US-Canada relationship that statesmen working on the US-Mexico/Cuba/Venezuela relationships could focus on.

Social stability and integration. The US and Canada are similar in culture and society, largely due to the fact that both have dynamic yet reasonably stable societies. Cuba and Venezuela might have possessed these once, but their present regimes and economic systems appear increasingly volatile; Mexico has struggled with internal dissension for the entirety of its history. Before any kind of regional infrastructure could rise, it would be crucial for the US to do its part to encourage the development of stable regimes and societies in these countries. As the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate, nation-building is a borderline impossible feat and can only truly be taken on by nations themselves; therefore, a working partnership coupling local administration and US support is the only way such a policy could ever be effective. In Cuba and Venezuela, this would likely involve improved trade and diplomatic relations justified by the doctrine of power pluralism, the acceptance and outreach to regimes capable of keeping order in their own house. It might also involve advisory relationships, increasingly generous trade deals, and even subsidies to encourage those states’ development towards mixed-market economies and away from the largely statist model both have now. In the case of Mexico, this would involve similar pressure for political reform and immensely generous support for a renewed campaign to extirpate the various drug cartels from the Mexican borderland. It would likely also involve comprehensive immigration reform and deals for shared border security with the Mexican government, and perhaps even drug legalization within the US as an effort to neuter the cartels at their base source of funding. The US would pursue, by whatever practical means possible, the development of orderly, prosperous leviathans in its three primary Caribbean neighbors. Only in this way can the societies of the US, Canada, Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela become a more cohesive unit.

Economic and Political independence, yet unity. The broader North American system would be entirely useless if it became a power-client relationship between the US and its neighbors. While the US must dominate the region politically and militarily to ensure that no outside power can threaten it, the members of the coalition must be treated as equals. Moreover, there cannot be economic imperialism either—while to some degree it is inevitable that regions will specialize, such specialization should not make any one state dependent on any other. Each state should be independent within an interdependent framework, possessing a mixed economy and tied intimately, though not inseparably, to all its neighbors. Each state ought to have its own manufacturing, commerce, agricultural, information, creative, exploitation and service sectors; each should trade reasonably freely with all its neighbors. This North American-Greater Caribbean Bloc, united by continental infrastructure but dotted with national borders and national interests and shepherded by the US, might work wonders to build a prosperous future for the hundreds of millions living within its domain. It is crucial not to centralize too much and wind up with a dysfunctional system (like the EU), yet it is crucial not to decentralize political and military power too much and wind up with a system of ravenous, competing, equally powerful nation-states capable of turning North America into a competitive battleground.

Ultimately, before such a system as this can work, each of the prospective candidates has work to do. Mexico needs to fight corruption and win the drug war; Cuba and Venezuela need to build more sustainable societies; Canada and the US have a lot of nationalist political reform to do on their own. But as they modernize into the Information Age, these states might all align under the common interests of North America. This would be a security and prosperity boon to all, but most especially to the US.

For a US as primus inter pares of a North American-Greater Caribbean regional order would be an empire of greater power than the US empire has ever known before. It would know greater security and greater prosperity, become a more vigorous and vibrant society, and command the most fruitful territory on the planet. The political and international ramifications of this development would be huge. But such a system of greater integration cannot arise on its own. A clear vision of such a continental system must come first. It is for us to see whether our statesmen will see any value in it, and only then will its foundations be laid.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors, or governors.


Luke Phillips

Luke Phillips is a policy researcher and political writer interested in economic policy, government reform, American political and intellectual history, federalism and administration, foreign policy and grand strategy, and political theory. He is based between Southern California and Washington D.C., and has been active in California state politics.

Phillips has been involved in policy research, commentary publishing, and politics for some time. He has done stints and projects at the Richard Nixon Foundation, the John Hay Initiative, Mike & Morley LLC, The American Interest magazine, the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, and various California Republican campaigns, including Duf Sundheim’s 2016 bid for the U.S. Senate and David Hadley’s brief 2018 campaign for Governor of California. He has been involved in various center-right blogging projects over the years, including The Progressive Republican League, The New Hamiltonian, and most recently, The Hamiltonian Republican. He keeps a personal blog on politics, history, ethics, and philosophy called “A Biased Perspective.” Outside of writing and politics, Phillips has marched in the University of Southern California’s Trojan Marching Band, sang in various Catholic choirs, and worked as an OA Trail Crew Foreman in the Philmont Scout Ranch Conservation Department. He is an avid hiker, a mediocre ukulelist, and an occasional poet.
Luke is currently finishing his Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California. He commutes regularly to the Washington D.C. Metro Area, where he will be relocating in 2018. Phillips is an Eagle Scout, and a member of the Hertog Foundation Alumni and the USC Unruh Associates.