Latin America Advisor

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Will Another ‘Three Amigos’ Summit Happen Anytime Soon?

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with his former Mexican and U.S. counterparts, Enrique Peña Nieto and Barack Obama. File Photo: Mexican Gov’t.

While Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among the first world leaders to congratulate U.S. President-elect Joe Biden on his electoral victory in November, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was among the last. With Biden slated to take office on Jan. 20, what can be expected of the future of North American relations, and which issues will take center-stage? Is a so-called Three Amigos Summit, which brings together the three countries’ presidents, likely to happen anytime soon? How is the security situation and economic outlook for the region changing North American relations?

Gerónimo Gutiérrez Fernández, senior advisor at Covington & Burling and former Mexican ambassador to the United States: “From a structural or strategic point of view, North America has a great opportunity ahead even if it now faces a difficult context or tactical challenges. This opportunity lies in the restructuring of world supply chains as well as the present geopolitical context. North America benefits from having a new trade agreement in place (USMCA), as well as security interests that are by and large aligned. As we have seen during the last years, the idea of North America as an economic region and a security perimeter has been quite resilient, because it benefits the three countries. I hope this will be more important than any difference that the leaders might have. Roughly 15 years ago, the first North American Leaders’ Summit took place in Waco, Tex., and I believe the meetings have been useful and should continue. They provide a space to align visions, establish priorities, instruct bureaucracies to work on them and conduct follow-ups, something that is always important. There are six key issues that I believe can be addressed: post-Covid economic recovery, supply chain security and resiliency, regional infrastructure and competitiveness, cooperation on climate change, security in the present geopolitical context and regional labor mobility and work force development. I am not naïve, and I expect that there will be some resistances in the three countries. However, it is clearly in the best interest of the three partners to again pursue a North American agenda.”

Christopher Sands, director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center and director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University SAIS: “After four difficult years working with U.S. President Donald Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador will find the 46th president of the United States, Joseph Biden, to be more open to dialogue and partnership. However, the Biden administration will also be constrained by the closely divided U.S. Congress, a judiciary growing more skeptical of governing by executive orders and administrative law. The 2020 election confirmed that Americans remain politically polarized. In his personnel choices, Biden has signaled a restoration of the Washington establishment. This experienced and generally centrist team will bring welcome competence. The implementation of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) will proceed with strong bipartisan support. Joint border restrictions adopted with Canada and Mexico will continue and slow the spread of Covid-19. There is now potential for increased regional cooperation in vaccine production and distribution. Yet the USMCA allows domestic set-asides (‘Buy American’ provisions) in stimulus spending and border adjustment taxes on imports from jurisdictions with lower carbon pricing systems, two areas where the North American countries could clash. North American regionalism often stalls when one of the three leaders is a ‘reluctant amigo.’ During the Obama years, the role was played by Canada’s Stephen Harper; during the Trump years, it was Trump himself. In the Biden years, AMLO seems to be auditioning for the part. Biden may renew annual North American Leaders’ Summits, set a friendlier tone and honor U.S. commitments to both neighbors. After 2020, these modest changes from Washington will be welcomed in Ottawa and Mexico City.”

Rebecca Bill Chavez, nonresident senior fellow with the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law program at the Inter-American Dialogue and former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs: “Joe Biden understands the importance of the North America partnership, and he will act quickly to rebuild and strengthen U.S. relationships with both Canada and Mexico. The president-elect knows that the United States cannot act on its own to effectively address today’s urgent national security challenges that transcend borders, including pandemics, climate change and irregular migration. One of the first steps to tackle these complex challenges will be to re-establish the trilateral North American Leaders’ Summit, a forum for crafting a shared agenda that will include the coronavirus crisis and climate change. In the case of energy and climate cooperation, the United States, Canada and Mexico can use the summit framework to harmonize environmental regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to set targets on clean energy development. The devastating impact of Covid-19 also illustrates the importance of cross-border intergovernmental collaboration. Whereas Trump responded with ineffective and cruel border policies and restrictions, including the CDC order banning the entry of asylum seekers, we can expect Biden to revive the Global Health Security Agenda and the North American Plan for Animal and Pandemic Influenza, which will strengthen domestic and regional preparedness through rapid information sharing, research and development, and vector-control. Such close coordination was critical to containing the H1N1 virus that originated in Mexico in 2009, ultimately saving thousands of lives and mitigating the pandemic’s economic impact. Biden has also committed to restoring funding to the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization, which play critical roles in helping nations respond to Covid-19.”

Antonio Ortiz Mena, senior vice president at Albright Stonebridge Group: “Mexico-U.S. security cooperation will be a major challenge: after being arrested in Los Angeles at the DEA’s behest, former Defense Secretary Cienfuegos was returned to Mexico. He has not been charged there, and on Dec. 15 Mexico passed a new law severely curtailing the actions of foreign agents. In addition, a key AMLO ally proposed amending a central bank law to force it to buy foreign cash that commercial banks cannot return to their country of origin; this would significantly complicate actions to combat money laundering. Migration presents an opportunity for trilateral cooperation to address undocumented migration from the Northern Triangle in a humane and holistic way, and it should be supported by the three countries. Climate change will be a central part of Biden’s environmental, economic and foreign policies. U.S.-Canada cooperation should be natural but less so with Mexico, given that AMLO wants to make Pemex and CFE great again and has an adversarial stance against renewables. U.S. economic nationalism will be more subtle and rules-based under a Biden administration, but it will not go away. On Dec. 21, the U.S. Senate passed Resolution 625, which ‘declares that it is U.S. policy to Buy American.’ Agricultural disputes will also likely remain, and there is not much the USMCA can do in either case, at least in the short term. Finally, the USMCA’s competitiveness charter offers an opportunity to think regionally. Given the challenges facing each country, this chapter should become one of the most important frameworks for regional cooperation.” 

Carlos Vejar, partner at Holland & Knight in Mexico City: “Many observers see the intense exposure of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the public media as contributing to a more divided and opinionated Mexican society, making it hard for many to judge him objectively. In this context, being among the last of the world leaders to congratulate U.S. President-elect Joe Biden was considered by many as a bad omen for Mexico’s bilateral relations with the incoming Biden administration. However, such a single event, which should be irrelevant, cannot override the fact that it was under AMLO’s watch that the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) negotiations took place, meaning there are no grounds to forecast a negative U.S.-Mexico relationship from a single protocol decision. The truth is that there are too many other things that will occupy the attention of the two countries’ bilateral agenda that are quite unlikely to be solved through a new ‘Three Amigos’ gathering or other friendship gestures. Without a doubt, USMCA will become a central piece for both the U.S. and Mexican administrations, much more than the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Unlike NAFTA, the USMCA state-to-state dispute settlement mechanism is functional and ready to be used. Labor, energy and environmental issues will be most likely placed under USMCA scrutiny, and tensions between Mexico and the United States on these topics will most likely emerge. Mexico should not expect a soft enforcement of the USMCA by the Biden administration. But in a post-Covid economy, trade issues may not be as relevant or urgent to address as Mexican national security issues, involving immigration and increasing violence.”

Laura Carlsen, director of the Mexico City-based Americas Program and strategy consultant with Just Associates: “Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s delay in recognizing Joe Biden’s electoral victory while giving credence to Trump’s legal challenges soured relations with the incoming U.S. administration, but it’s unlikely to do long-term harm. The Dec. 19 Biden-AMLO call was mostly a courtesy call that laid out common interests in migration, Covid-19, the economy and ‘securing the common border,’ showing little change from the Trump agenda. Although the Biden readout mentions ‘a new orderly and humane approach to immigration’ and asylum, it warned that change will be slow, and AMLO oddly defended the Trump-era ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy that Biden has promised to eliminate. Mexican migrant-rights organizations immediately condemned AMLO’s statement that the policy caused no human rights violations as 68,000 people wait in refugee camps in Mexico’s most dangerous cities for suspended asylum hearings. Both presidents rightly see Central American policy as key to reducing migration, but with the fatal flaw of failing to consider the crisis of democracy in Northern Triangle nations or human rights violations related to investment in extractive industries and megaprojects—particularly for women and Indigenous peoples. Mexico’s new U.S. ambassador, former PRI cabinet member Esteban Moctezuma, lacks diplomatic experience and presages a ‘business-as-usual approach’ that does not bode well for proactive measures to roll back Trump’s anti-immigrant, interventionist and pro-corporate strategy. Mexico has an opportunity to build a progressive, binational agenda, based on more than not ruffling the U.S. president. And it has popular support on both sides of the border to do so. Hopefully, AMLO and Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, the architect of the Trump appeasement strategy, will reorient their approach on Jan. 20.”

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