On January 2, 1988, leaders of the United States and Canada met to sign the first major agreement in decades designed to comprehensively lower trade barriers between the two countries. Since the 1850s, American and Canadian politicians had striven to lower or eliminate trade barriers between the two countries, with uneven success; the first such agreement, the Elgin-Marcy Treaty of 1854, was torpedoed by the United States only 12 years later in retaliation for British support of the Confederacy during the Civil War, and successive efforts over the years at eliminating various protectionist policies inevitably fell prey to cries of protectionism or favoritism on one side or the other.
But 1988’s Free Trade Agreement (FTA) would be different, leaders in both countries assured their respective citizenries. This time around, trade barriers would be lowered across the board, and protective tariffs and other barriers become a thing of the past. Moreover, Americans and Canadians received glib assurances that the agreement would in nowise jeopardize the sovereignty or independence of either country.
In one respect, American and Canadian leaders were telling their constituents the truth: This trade agreement was different. The FTA — unlike its various abortive predecessors over the previous 130 years — was intended to be but the first step in a process of economic and political integration that would indeed, over the long run, abolish the independence not only of the United States and Canada, but the rest of North America as well.
Despite its significance, the FTA was passed with little fanfare in the United States, where President Reagan presented it to Congress under a “fast-track” procedure that limited debate and disallowed amendments.
As it stood, the FTA was a fairly typical trade accord, but it did not come about in a vacuum. Unnoticed by most lawmakers at the time of its passage was another initiative, under way since 1986, to create a trilateral trade agreement involving not only Canada and the United States, but also Mexico. This agreement, which was to become the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) only a few years later, was the real prize; the FTA was supposed to lay the groundwork for, and be superseded by, NAFTA, and was only negotiated because those favoring a more comprehensive trade agreement knew that a Canada-U.S. accord would be much easier to achieve.
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