New article: Public views of North America

The North American Leaders Summit resumed after a five-year hiatus in November 2021.

Our new research article, “Issue-Areas, Sovereignty Costs, and North Americans’ Attitudes Toward Regional Cooperation,” has been published in the open-access journal Global Studies Quarterly.

The article results from a long-running collaboration with Malcolm Fairbrother of Umea University in Sweden (formerly of Bristol University in the UK) and Clarisa Pérez-Armendáriz of Bates College in Maine. We met and started working together through the Robert A. Pastor North American Research Initiative at American University, which I have been co-coordinating since 2015.

Our article examines public opinion in Canada, Mexico, and the United States regarding cooperation in North America. Normally, studies of public opinion on regionalism either ask for people’s views of trade integration or of a specific regional agreement or organization (NAFTA, the EU, Mercosur, etc.). But we assessed polling data that do something different, also asking people about their views of cooperation on six different issue-areas: energy, border security, economics, currency, environment, and defense. The surveys ran in 2013 and were overseen by Miguel Basáñez, Frank Graves, and Robert Pastor, who I was assisting at the time. Thanks to Miguel and Frank for generously sharing the full datasets! Given the rather dated nature of the survey, we’re not aiming to provide breaking news about levels of support today (generally, support for trade and other cooperation in North America is high unless you say “NAFTA” in which case it drops and polarizes … though this effect was most pronounced in 2016-2017). Instead, we are trying to understand specific features of how people view regional cooperation more generally.

What the survey shows is quite interesting. People’s opinions of where they would like more regional cooperation differ quite a lot depending on the issue, and the differences are bigger than cross-national differences on trade. Generally, there is not a big difference in whether people prefer bilateral or trilateral cooperation. We go into different possible explanations for this in the paper, including individual-level correlates. But we think there are national-level patterns that result from assessments of whether one’s country is likely to benefit from cooperation. Those calculations take into account risks and benefits caused by divergent national capabilities. There are also some really interesting, issue-specific patterns. For example, Mexicans are supportive of cooperation on currency; US and Canadian respondents, not at all.

The abstract is below, and the paper is at the link.

Studies of public opinion toward regionalism tend to rely on questions regarding trade integration and specific regional organizations. This narrow focus overlooks dimensions of regionalism that sit at the heart of international relations research on regions today. Instead, we argue that research should explore public preferences with respect to regional cooperation in different issue-areas. We find that people’s views of regional cooperation in North America diverge from their attitudes toward trade integration alone. Using data from Rethinking North America, an untapped public opinion survey conducted in Mexico, Canada, and the United States in 2013, we show that although country-level attitudes toward trade integration in North America were similar, preferences for regional cooperation varied by country depending on the issue at hand. We propose that attitudes are shaped by citizens’ perceptions of the asymmetric patterns of national-level benefits and vulnerabilities created by regional cooperation. Generally, respondents favor cooperation where their state stands to gain greater capacity benefits and oppose it where cooperation imposes greater costs on national autonomy. For policymakers, this multifaceted approach to regionalism sheds light on areas where public preferences for regional cooperation might converge. Future research that disaggregates various aspects of support for regional cooperation should help integrate the study of public opinion with “new” and comparative regional approaches that emphasize the aspects of regionalism beyond trade and formal institutions.

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