STANFORD -- Canada, the United States and Mexico are in the process of creating a new regional identity and institutions - a counterpart to the European Community but with a small "c" on community, says Stanford University historian John Wirth.
Wirth and Robert Earle, a career foreign service officer and visiting scholar at the North American Institute in Santa Fe, N.M., spoke recently to a Stanford audience about their efforts to gather a group of prominent authors, politicians and scholars to speculate about the possible shapes of a future North American identity.
"Three separate countries are creating a new, larger community. This is virtually inevitable, although few people have ideas yet on what it will be like," said Wirth, president of the institute.
The two said they will edit and publish a book of essays on the subject later this year in the three main languages of the continent - English, Spanish and French. The project is supported by the Santa Fe- based institute, which brings together business leaders, politicians, journalists, academics and other professionals from the three countries to promote cooperation and networking. Funded by foundations and individuals in all three countries, the institute also supports formal research projects and coordinates with studies conducted at Stanford through its North America Forum and Center for Latin American Studies.
When a cultural identity project was first discussed at an institute meeting, members felt protective of their national identities, Wirth said. But after several lengthy discussions, a less-threatening vision is emerging of a unique North American identity that involves retention of national cultural identities.
"We all have passionate commitments to our own nationality, but it's possible to have deep respect for other allegiances," Wirth said.
North American "communities" are already being built from the ground up. Wirth and Earle cited several examples:
* Los Angeles and Mexico City officials meet regularly to exchange information on air pollution. They meet, Wirth said, not because Los Angeles has 3 million residents who are Mexican citizens but because a "looming environmental disaster" threatens both cities.
* Officials from seven ports along the Gulf of Mexico meet every three months to discuss shipping policies, dredging and regulation. "They are seeing themselves as a regional export zone," he said.
* New Jersey officials experienced with handling "hate crimes" recently went to Toronto to work with officials there on that problem, Earle said, and Canadian health care officials recently permitted citizens in the Vancouver area to seek health care in Seattle.
Supra-national institutions with power to make laws across the continent are unlikely in the North American region, Wirth and Earle said, because none of the three countries sees it as in its best interest to create institutions in the style of the European Community.
After a February colloquium on the environment, the North American Institute issued a report endorsing the idea of a new North American Commission on the Environment, which was announced in vague terms in September 1992 by the environmental ministers of the three countries.
Colloquium participants from the three countries agreed that "supra-national enforcement powers were not necessary to assure the kind of public and political accountability which asserts a powerful force in its own right," their report said. Instead they will recommend to their own governments that they negotiate an agreement for "data exchange, technical training and public information which [will] form the basis of environmental laws."
Regular public reports that identify problems and opportunities can create effective, corrective public pressure on national governments or businesses, Wirth said the group decided. Mickey Kantor, the new U.S. trade representative, expressed his interest in this model in recent congressional testimony on how the Clinton administration plans to proceed on negotiations of side agreements to the North American Free Trade accord.
Immigration and labor problems among the three countries may be more difficult to handle with a tri-national commission, Wirth and Earle said. "There is a conspiracy of silence regarding immigration in which neither conservatives nor liberals want to talk," Earle said.
Labor issues are more likely to be discussed and resolved at regional and local levels, Wirth said. All three countries have a federal form of government, which allows them to make some agreements at the sub- national level, he said.
The "key dynamic" to a North American identity involves "the relationship between individual and group identities," Earle said. The book's authors discussed this dynamic at a recent 14-hour brainstorming session. Mexico has a "counter-reformation collectivist past," he said, whereas the United States places a high value on individual liberties and "Canada is in its perpetual, permanent massive struggle" between individual and group rights.
Despite these different histories, Wirth said, the authors' discussions and drafts suggest that "a pluralism across a range of institutions and places is possible. We tend to see it coming together in a sense of community."