Q: U.S. President Barack Obama, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper met last week for the annual North American Leaders’ Summit. Critics have pointed out that Obama failed to advance agreement on major issues sought by Mexico and Canada, such as immigration reform, the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the Keystone XL pipeline. What did the summit accomplish, and on what issues did it fall short of its potential? Should the White House invest more political capital on issues concerning Mexico and Canada? Why or why not?
A: Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue: “As long as Washington fails to deal effectively with the issues of greatest concern to Mexico and Canada, there is virtually no prospect of moving toward a North American community or partnership. For sure, the White House has to invest more political capital in the trilateral relationship, but given the fractures in U.S. politics, it may not make much difference. NAFTA was a giant step forward for relations among the three countries and has contributed importantly to each of their economies. But it should be time for a ‘more ambitious agenda’ as called for in an eponymously titled Dialogue commission report last year. Mexico’s reforms since the release of the report provide a strong basis for a new and expanded cooperation. But the recent summit of the three North American leaders was a disappointment–mostly because (1) U.S. immigration reforms appear fatally blocked and (2) congressional approval of fast track authority, which is needed to nail down key trade deals, is in grave doubt. In addition, Canada remains frustrated by the U.S. failure to decide on the future of the Keystone pipeline, while Mexico remains deeply irritated by Canada’s new visa requirements. Despite the outsized attention given to security issues, U.S.-Mexican relations as well as the tripartite Canada-Mexico-U.S. alliance are mostly about economics (trade, investment, and energy) and demography (immigration). If Washington cannot make progress on either front, the agenda will remain stalled. The United States either has to invest more in its relations with Mexico and Canada, or its partnerships will remain limited and critical opportunities will be lost.”
A: Arturo Sarukhan, chairman of global solutions at Podesta Group in Washington and former Mexican ambassador to the United States: “It’s generally a mistake to pin success or failure of North American Leaders’ Summits (NALS) on traction–or lack of thereof–in the three sets of bilateral agendas. Much as Mexico would like to see progress on immigration reform in the United States, Canada on Keystone with the United States, the United States on Rio Grande water issues with Mexico, or Mexico with visas for travel to Canada, the NALS must be measured in terms of the deepening and widening of our trilateral architecture and agenda. Even though the Toluca Summit seems to have nudged the conversation in this direction, it apparently failed in pouring Drano down the pipes of three vexing challenges: the underlying Canadian conviction that trilateralism detracts from its priority of strengthening bilateral relations with the United States; the on-going conundrum–rooted in the grassroots politics with labor–that the U.S. government has had with unreservedly embracing NAFTA and North America as a paradigm of success; and the failure of the three nations-and of consecutive governments since 2011–to jointly and strategically address a new generation of issues that were not anticipated by NAFTA. This is why the Trans-Pacific Partnership and energy, two issues front and center in this past summit, are so promising for North America’s future. The former can modernize NAFTA and improve our joint production and logistics platforms, enhancing our global competitiveness. The latter promises to deliver one of the most profound geostrategic and economic realignments of the post-Cold War world: a common North American energy independence, efficiency and security template. At the end of the day, a pivot to North America by the three North American nations is what is truly needed.”
A: Andrés Rozental, member of the Advisor board and president of Rozental & Asociados in Mexico City: “Expectations for the Toluca encounter–also dubbed the Tres Amigos Summit–were quite high in Mexico because there was no annual summit in 2013 and because President Peña Nieto has given trilateralism and North American competitiveness a high priority during his administration. Unfortunately, the very short time allocated to the trip by President Obama and the distractions around the crises in Ukraine and Venezuela made this summit appear in the eyes of the media as unproductive, disappointing and a lost opportunity for the region to reignite enthusiasm for the North American agenda. While it’s true that neither Mexico nor Canada were successful in getting Obama to make strong commitments on specific issues such as immigration reform, Keystone XL or any of the other irritants that cloud the bilateral and trilateral relationships, the summit did deliver a series of interesting new commitments that can partially re-energize the North American idea. A North American transportation plan was agreed to that should make the movement of goods and people more efficient, including through new harmonized customs procedures and joining the three countries’ existing trusted traveler programs into a single North American program; Canada-U.S. and Mexico-U.S. border liaison mechanisms, which until now have been exclusively bilateral, will now have Mexican and Canadian observer participation, respectively. This same modality will be added to the bilateral regulatory harmonization mechanisms already in place, there was agreement on significantly expanding scholarships and academic exchanges among all three countries, and energy ministers will be meeting in the near future to design a North American energy strategy for renewables and energy efficiency. Prior to the trilateral summit, Primer Minister Harper had an official bilateral visit which was much less productive as far as Mexico was concerned because of his refusal to positively address President Peña Nieto’s request that Canada remove the visa requirement it imposed on Mexicans several years ago and which has seriously harmed the bilateral relationship.”
A: Carlo Dade, director of the Centre for Trade & Investment Policy at The Canada West Foundation: “The summit in Toluca made painfully clear that North America can now, officially, be declared brain dead and on life support. NAFTA’s troubles and the long-suffering idea for a bolder North American project a la Bob Pastor was in trouble from Obama’s first run for office when he, and his chief foreign policy advisor, gratuitously threw the agreement under the bus. What at the time looked like standard campaign theatrics has proven to be anything but. The president’s disdain coupled with the tea party on one side and liberal democrats and organized labor on the other, united in their distaste for NAFTA, means that the climate in Washington has never been worse. So despite rising trade, NAFTA has continued to degrade in the face of modern 2.0-type agreements being negotiated with the European Union and dynamic new integration groups like the Pacific Alliance. The Canada-Mexico bilateral meeting preceding the summit did not help either; just the opposite. Canada’s inability to give Mexico a straight answer, let alone a satisfactory one, on the lifting of the visa requirement for travel to Canada doomed that summit from the outset. The irony of the past week was the inability of Canada to reconcile its anger at the lack of a U.S. decision on the Keystone pipeline with Mexico’s anger on Canada’s lack of movement on the visa issue. That two of the three leaders spent almost as much time talking about Ukraine as North America was as damming an indictment as possible of the lack of anything in the summit. The United States now appears to have essentially abandoned North America to put all of its eggs in the TPP basket. This leaves a weakened, more reactive North America where leaders converge on an issue by issue basis. Most interesting though is the possibility of a subnational option based on strong common interests in the western United States, Canada and northern Mexico. After Toluca, getting North America off of life support may not depend on Ottawa, Washington and Mexico City.”
2009 has not been a good year for U.S.-Latin America relations. Despite their warm welcome at the April Summit, Latin America’s governments made life more difficult than anticipated for President Obama.
Inter-American relations have taken a disappointing course for the Obama Administration. The US has suffered several political setbacks in the region and little progress has been made on most of the “legacy” issues that Obama inherited.