[Robert Kaplan, Earning the Rockies. How Geography Shapes America's Role in the World. Random House. New York, 2017. 201 pages]
REVIEW / Iñigo Bronte Barea
Despite rising powers in conventional geopolitics, the United States today remains unopposed due to geography as an overwhelming advantage for the US. As such, the country is blessed with a trifecta of comparative advantages. The country is bound by oceans on both sides, lacks any real threat from its neighbors, and contains an almost perfect river network.
Throughout the book, Author Robert D. Kaplan guides the reader as he travels the US, portraying how geography impacts the livelihood of its population, analyzes the concerns of its citizens, and studies how the country achieved its current composition from a historical lens.
The author introduces the topic by arguing that the world´s security during the 20th and 21st century largely depended on the political unity and stability of the United States. Kaplan crosses the country to study how geography helped the US attain the position that they have in the world. The title of his book, “Earning the Rockies,” emphasizes the importance of the fact that in order to achieve western part of nowadays US, it would be necessary to first control the East, the Midwest, and the Great American Desert.
During his travels, Kaplan brought three books to reinforce his personal experiences on the road. His first book was “The Year of Decision: 1846” from the DeVoto trilogy of the West. From this text, Kaplan learns that America´s first empirical frontier was not in the Caribbean or Philippines, but earlier in the western part of the country itself. Kaplan also stresses the idea that the solitude and dangers of the old West are today very present in the common American character. In particular, he argues such values remain manifested in the extremely competitive capitalist system and the willingness of its population for military intervention. The last and most important idea that Kaplan gleans from DeVoto was that the defining feature of US greatness today is based ultimately on the country being a nation, an empire and a continent, all rolled into one.
Kaplan starts his journey in the spring of 2015 in Massachusetts. He wanted to contemplate the American continent and its international role, and the one that must be expected for it in the coming years; he wanted to discover this while hearing people talking, to discover what are their real worries.
Back on the East coast, Kaplan traces the country’s origins after the independence of the thirteen colonies in 1776. Kaplan starts his eastern journey by examining the US from a historical perspective and how it grew to become a global force without equal. Primarily, Kaplan argues that the US did so by first becoming an army before the US became a nation. For the author, President Theodore Roosevelt was the one who realized that the conquest of the American West set the precedent for a foreign policy of active engagement worldwide.
Kaplan continues his travels through the Great Lakes region; Lancaster, Pittsburgh, Ohio, and West Virginia. His travel is set in the context of the Presidential primary season, in which he examines the decline of the rural middle class from the staple of the American workforce to near poverty. As such, the devolution of the social process ended with the election of Donald J. Trump. Despite a legacy of success in globalization and multilateralism, America quickly became a nation enthralled with a renewed sense nationalism and isolationism.
From his travels, Kaplan deduces several types of groups based on the founding fathers. He categorizes them as following: elites in Washington and New York were Wilsonian (who seek to promote democracy and international law), Hamiltonians (who are intellectual realists and emphasize commercial ties internationally) or Jeffersonians (who emphasize perfecting American democracy at home more than engaging abroad). Surprisingly, the huge majority of the American people were actually Jacksonians: they believe in honor, faith in God, and military institutions.
Kaplan continues his path towards the Pacific by crossing Kentucky and Indiana, where the transition zone leads him to the arid grasslands. During his voyage, Kaplan finds that the people did not really care about ISIS, the rise of China, the Iraq War or any other international issues, but instead their worries on their work, health, family, and basic economic survival. This is in fact because of their Jacksonian way of seeing life. This in turn means that Americans expect their government to keep them safe and to hunt down and kill anyone who threatens their safety. Related to this, was the fact that isolationism was an American tradition, which fits well within the current political landscape as multilateralism has lost much of its appeal to people in the heartland.
The native grasses and rich soil of the temperate zone of this part of the country, such as Illinois, promote the fertility of the land that goes on for hundreds and hundreds of miles in all directions. For Kaplan, this is ultimately what constitutes the resourceful basis of continental wealth that permits America’s ambitious approach to the world.
West of Lincoln, the capital city of Nebraska, it could be said that you enter the real West, where roads, waterways and urban cities rapidly disappears. At this point, Kaplan begins to make reference to the second book that he read for this part of the journey. This time, author Welter P. Webb in “The Great Plains” explains that the history of the US relies on the history of the pioneers adapting to life in the Great American Desert. This author argues that the Great Plains stopped slavery, prompting the defeat of the Confederacy. He states so because for Webb, the Civil War was a conflict between two sides whose main difference was largely economic. The Southern system based on the plantation economy with huge, “cash” crops and slave labor. On the other hand, the Northern economic system was based on small farms, skilled labor, and a rising industrialized system. While the Great Plains were a barrier for pioneers in general, that wall was greater for the Southern economy than for the industrializing North, which could adapt to aridity unlike the farming economy of the south.
The last book that Kaplan reads while crossing the country is “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian” by Wallace Stenger. The author of this book stresses the importance of the development limitations in immense areas of the western US due to a lack of water. This desert provided a big challenge for the federal government, which manages the little resources available in that area with the construction of incredible dams, such as the Hoover Dam, and turnpike highway system. It remains quite clear that the culmination of American history has more to do with the West than with the East. Stenger is well aware of the privileged geographic position of the US, without dangerous neighbors or other inland threat. In addition, the US contains an abundance of inland waterways and natural resources that are not found on such a scale anywhere else. This characteristic, helps provide the US with geographical and political power unlike any other in modern history. As Stenger stipulates, the fact that World War II left mainland America unscathed, which inly shows how geography has blessed the US.
One of the key aspects that Kaplan realized along his trip was the incredible attachment that Americans have to their military. For Kaplan, this feeling becomes more and more romanticized as he headed westward. In Europe, despite the threats of terrorism, refugees, and Russia, the military is seen locally as merely civil servants in funny uniforms, at least according to Stenger. On the contrary, America, which faces less physical threats than Europe, still maintains a higher social status and respect for military personnel.
In summation, the radical landscape of the west provided Americans with a basis for their international ambition. After all, if they could have conquered and settled this unending vastness, they settle the rest of the world too. However, the very aridity of the western landscape that Kaplan faces at the end of his voyage, requires restraint, planning, and humility in much of what the government had to invest in order to make the west inhabitable and successful. But despite the feeling that they could conquer the world, America faces huge inequalities, real and imagined, that force US leaders to focus on domestic issues rather than foreign affairs. Therefore, elites and leaders in Washington tend to be centrist and pragmatic. In such, they do not dream about conquering the world nor opt to withdraw from it either. Instead, they maintain America’s “pole position” place within its global affairs.
At the end, it could be said that American soil itself is what in fact really orients the country towards the world. Despite all the restraint and feelings for the heartland, what really matters are the politicians and business leaders that enable the new American reality: the world itself is now the final, American frontier.
▲Presidents Enrique Peña Nieto and Donald Trump, in the latest G20 Summit; Hamburg, July 2017 [Presidency of México]
ANALYSIS / Dania Del Carmen Hernández [Spanish version]
Canada, the United States and Mexico find themselves immerse in the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The trade treaty between these three countries has been controversial in the past few years, especially in the US, where many have doubted its benefits. During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump defended the complete elimination of the treaty; subsequently, when already in the White House, he agreed to make the renegotiation happen. President Trump argues that the pact has hollowed out US manufacturing and caused a trade deficit of over $60 billion with Mexico ($18 billion with Canada), so unless he can rework it in favor of the United States, he said, he won’t hesitate to withdraw from it.
Overall, the American people have pretty positive views on the treaty, with 56% of the population who say that NAFTA is beneficial to the country, and just a 33% who say it’s bad, according to a poll conducted by Pew Research in November 2017. Out of those who have a negative view, the majority are Republicans with 53% of them claiming Mexico benefits more, compared to Democrats who are generally more supporting of the trade pact and with just 16% who agree with the Republicans on that matter.
Regardless of public acceptance, opinion on the treaty hasn’t always been so dubious. When President Bill Clinton signed it into law, it was actually considered one of the first successes in his presidency. The same way globalization has liberalized trade all over the world, NAFTA effectively expanded trade and presented a great number of opportunities for the US, all while strengthening the country's economy.
Under NAFTA, US trade in goods and services with Canada and Mexico went from $337 billion in 1994 when the treaty came into force, to about $1.4 trillion in 2016. Under NAFTA, cross-border investment among the three member countries has surged as well, from $126.8 billion in 1993 to $731.3 billion in 2016.
The concern in Washington is that, despite of the increasing volume of trade, in relative terms the US isn’t getting fruitful enough results, compared to what its neighbors are getting from it. In any case, Canada and Mexico accept that, almost after 25 years of validity, the agreement must be revised to be able to adapt it to the new productive and commercial conditions, defined by technological innovations that, as is with the case of the development of the internet, weren’t contemplated when the treaty was signed.
Round to round examination
The discussion between the three countries affects numerous aspects, but we can talk about three main blocks that have to do with certain red lines set by the different parts in the negotiation: rules of origin; the desire of the United States to end the independent system of arbitration, through which Canada and Mexico can terminate the measures that might violate the treaty (elimination of Chapter 19), and finally other proposals, perhaps less decisive but equally important, oriented towards the general wish to update the agreement.
When the negotiations started, in August 2017, the countries expressed a concern to reach a final decision in January 2018. The plan was to have six rounds of meetings. That number has been already overcome: a seventh round is happening at the end of February and there will be possibly more. As we have reached the initial deadline an examination on the state of the discussion is relevant. A good way of doing it is following the evolution of the conversations through the rounds of meetings celebrated and this way we can evaluate the results that have been registered so far.
Latest North America Summit, with Presidents Peña Nieto and Obama, and Prime Minister Trudeau; Canada, June 2016 [Presidency of México]
1st Round (Washington D.C.; August 16-20, 2017)
The first round of negotiations set the priorities for each one of the three countries on the table; it served to fixate the agenda of the principal issues that would be discussed later on, without going into much detail about the measures and the how- to’s.
In the first place, Donald Trump had already set clear during his campaign that he considered NAFTA an unjust agreement for the United States, due to the commercial deficit that the country has mostly with Mexico, and to a lesser extent, with Canada. According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), the US went from a surplus of $1.3 billion in 1994 to a deficit of $64 billion in 2016. The major part of this deficit comes from the automotive industry. For the new administration, this puts in doubt that the treaty may have beneficial effects on American economy. Mexico, less predisposed to introduce important changes, insists that NAFTA has been good for all parties involved.
Another topic that was noted was Mexico’s salary gap against the US and Canada. Mexico defends that, despite having one of the lowest minimum wages in South America, and having had their medium wage stuck during the two past decades, this shouldn't be taken into account in the negotiations, for it is estimates that Mexican salaries will eventually reach those of their commercial partners. On the contrary, for the US and Canada, this remains a matter of concern; both countries insist that a wage increase would not damage Mexican economy.
Rules of origin was one of the principal recurring topics of discussion. The United States is looking for augmentation in the percentage of content that is required to consider a product as of origin so that it won’t be necessary to pay tariffs when moving it between the three countries. This proved to be rather controversial in this first round, as it could negatively affect Mexican and Canadian companies. Specialists have made the remark that a minimum of national content does not exist in any free trade treaties in the world.
Lastly, Trump’s administration let their intentions of eliminating Chapter 19 show. A section of the treaty which guarantees equality in the solving of disputes between the countries, making it so that it isn’t national laws what will dictate the outcome. The US understands it as a threat to their sovereignty and believes that conflicts should be resolved in a way in which their own democratic processes wont be ignored or jeopardized. For their part, Canada conditioned their permanence in the treaty with the maintenance of the chapter. Mexico also defends guarantees of independence in the resolution of conflicts even though for the moment it hasn't been categorical in this discussion, since it lingers on the side, and will act accordingly to what results most favorable.
2nd Round (Mexico City; September 1-5, 2017)
Although considered successful by many analysts, the second round of the renegotiation followed a very slow pace. Some of the matters that made advances were: salaries, access to markets, investment, rules of origin, commercial facilitation, environmental issues, digital commerce, SME’s, transparency, anti- corruption laws, agronomy and textiles.
The president of Corporate Coordinating Council in Mexico, Juan Pablo Castañon, insisted that for now the salary issue wasn't up for negotiation, and rejected the idea that any of the parties had the intention of pulling out of the treaty, despite the previous threats from the Trump administration. Castañon rallied in favor of Mexico supporting the maintenance of Chapter 19 or the establishment of a similar instrument with the purpose of solving commercial controversies amid the three countries.
3rd Round (Ottawa; September 23-27, 2017)
The delegates made important advances in competition policies, digital commerce, state-owned companies and telecommunications. The principal development had to do with some aspects related to SME’s.
The Canadian chancellor, Chrystia Freeland, criticized that the United States had not made any written formal proposals on the most complex areas, demonstrating a passive attitude of the country in the context of the negotiation.
The US trade official, Robert Lighthizer, said that his country is interested in incrementing the salaries in Mexico to avoid an unfair competence, seeing that Mexico has attracted factories and investments with their low salaries and their weak trade-union regulations.
Canada endured a firm posture on Chapter 19, which they consider one of the greatest achievements of the current agreement. “Our government is absolutely committed to defending it”, said Freeland. Washington requested, though without presenting a formal proposition, the modification of the rules of origin so that they are more strict, avoiding that imports from other nations are considered “made in North America”, just because they were assembled in Mexico.
This round took place while the United States fixated a tariff of almost 220% to the CSeries aircrafts by the Canadian manufacturer Bombardier, after considering that the enterprise had used a governmental subsidy to sell its planes to the United States at artificially low prices.
4th Round (Virginia; October 11-17, 2017)
The United States presented their formal proposal of elevating the rules of origin in the automobile industry and suggested introducing a termination clause in the treaty.
The US proposed elevating the percentage of components of national origin from any of the three countries from 62,5% to 85% so that the production in the automobile industry can benefit from NAFTA. This way 50% of it will be American production.
It was also debated, in the interest of Washington, the debilitation of the system of controversy resolution present in Chapter 19, which was done without registering an approximation of the positions.
To finish, they talked about a termination clause that would give the treaty five years of life and once that time was over, it would automatically disappear, unless, when the time came, the countries decided to renovate it. This proposal received several critiques, many claiming that this could infringe the essence of the agreement and that every five years would generate uncertainty in the region, considering that it would affect the investment plans of companies.
These proposals just sum to the harsh climax of the negotiation that had been present since the last round in which the US had started to defend difficult proposals like the trials for dumping (selling a product for a price below its normal price) in the imports of perishable Mexican products (tomatoes and berries, governmental and textile purchases.
5th Round (Mexico City; November 17-21, 2017)
The fifth round didn't show too many advances. The United States kept their requests and that generated frustration amongst the representatives of Mexico and Canada.
The US didn't receive alternatives to their proposal to change the regional composition from a 62,5% to an 85%, and that at least 50% is American, On the contrary, its commercial partners showed the damage that this proposal could cause to the three economies.
Faced with the US’ intentions to limit the number of concessions that their federal government offers to Mexican and Canadian enterprises, Mexican negotiators responded with a proposal to limit the country’s public contracts to the number of the contracts attained by Mexican companies with other governments inside the NAFTA. Given that the number of those contracts is significantly reduced, US companies will see their contracting being restricted.
Upon completion of this fifth round, the topics that are now more developed are the ones that involve a regulatory enhancement of telecommunications and the chapter on sanitary and phytosanitary measures. With this last thing, Americans are looking to establish new transparent and non discriminatory norms, that will allow each country to establish the degree of protection they find appropriate.
6th Round (Montreal; January 23-29, 2018)
The Sixth Negotiation Round saw some progress. The chapter on corruption was finally closed, and progress was made in other fields. More importantly, we finally saw a discussion that involved some of the core issues that had been pushed back in the previous negotiations. The progression is slow, but steady.
Robert Lightizer rejected the compromise on rules of origin that Canada had previously proposed. The structure was based on the idea that the rules of origin should be calculated to also include the value of software, engineering and other high-value work, which is currently not counted toward the regional content targets. This would guarantee the safeguarding of high-paying jobs in the area. The US expressed its disapproval to the Canadian proposal. Mexico didn’t find this surprising at all, as it already expected the cold shoulder from their American trade partner on this matter.
In another proposal, Canada made a threat as they claimed that they will keep the right to treat their neighbors worse than other countries if they enter into agreements. One of which could be China. The proposal was obviously not passed, as the US and presumably Mexico considered it ‘unacceptable’.
Although the countries successfully worked towards installing measures against corruption during the round of negotiations, they were far from successful at reaching an agreement on the topic of modifying rules of origin and calculating the regional content of the country in which automobiles are manufactured. All three countries remain motivated to keep making progress and will resume the negotiations for an speculation of two more sessions before the deadline that has been set in March, in order to avoid interference with the presidential election in Mexico and the US midterm elections in November.
Beyond the deadline
After more than seven months of meetings, as we have seen in the round-by-round examination, the negotiations between the three countries still have not reached the pre-agreement threshold that, even waiting to resolve more or less important points, should confirm the shared will to give continuity to NAFTA. The hard positions of the United States and the pressure of Canada and Mexico to save the treaty have so far resulted in a 'tug-of-war' that has allowed some partial, but not decisive, result. Thus, it remains to be determined if the treaty has actually reached its expiration date or may be reissued instead. For the time being, the three countries agree to continue working towards a renewed treaty.
From what has been seen so far in the negotiations, it is difficult to determine which country will be more willing to give in to the pressure exerted by the others. The most controversial issues have barely been addressed until recently, so it is also not possible to point out what achievements each country achieves in this negotiating process.
The two neighbors of the United States, but especially Canada, continue to warn of Trump's risk to end the treaty. An acceleration of the negotiations could help the positive resolution of the process, but the electoral calendar rather threatens delays. On March 30 begins the campaign of the presidential elections in Mexico, which will take place on July 1. In September, the United States will begin to pay more attention to the November Mid-term elections. A substantial progress before the Mexican elections could put the agreement on track, although some issues should have to be agreed later, but if in the next meetings there is not a breakthrough, the three countries could get used to the possibility of ending NAFTA, what would harm the negotiations.