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Canadian Trade Expert Discusses NAFTA at 20

Hon. William C. Graham discusses the successes and failures of NAFTA after two decades

NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, has been in effect for 20 years now, and given the controversy that surrounded the treaty during its ratification period, the question remains: is NAFTA working?

The Hon. William C. Graham addressed that question during a presentation at California Western on January 24: “NAFTA, Free Trade and the Americas: A Canadian Perspective.” The event was part of the 11th annual joint speakers series co-sponsored by the International Legal Studies Program at California Western and the Institute for International, Comparative, and Area Studies at the University of California, San Diego.

“NAFTA has been a disappointment to many of us in terms of what we thought it might achieve,” said Graham, whose resume includes positions as Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Defense and leader of the opposition party in Parliament, where he also was chairman of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International trade. He is currently the Chancellor at Trinity College of the University of Toronto.

Graham was introduced by Professor James M. Cooper, who called him “my friend, mentor, and a great inspiration to me and many others. He understands NAFTA as a practitioner and scholar of trade law.” Cooper, who is Canadian himself, once was a student of Graham's, and also has strong ties in Latin America though programs such as California Western’s Chile Summer Program and Proyecto ACCESO.

“NAFTA is hugely successful in some respects,” he said. Trade between the United States, Mexico, and Canada has more than tripled and foreign investment has substantially increased, but NAFTA has stagnated. While it’s hard to prove what the consequences are of the failure, how much more trade would we have had between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada had it worked better?”

One unanticipated barrier to NAFTA being more successful was the 9/11 attacks, Graham believes. He says 9/11 created security concerns that make the movement of people and goods across the U.S. border more difficult. “That’s the essence of any free trade arrangement,” Graham said. “What can we do about that?” he asked rhetorically.

An issue that Graham believes he does have an answer for is an effective way of resolving trade disputes between the nations of NAFTA, which are common and often difficult to settle.

“We should have a European-type court—a tripartite tribunal,” he says. “I’m a strong proponent of that.”

Despite the ongoing debate about NAFTA in Canada, Graham said there is significant support for the treaty across the nation.

“If you ask people around Canada whether we should get out of NAFTA, eight out of 10 will say absolutely not, although there are varying degrees of support in different provinces,” Graham said. “But we’re linked at the hip. I think we have to look for ways to build bridges, not blow them up.”