President Obama will meet Monday with the leaders of Canada and Mexico, the sixth North American Leaders Summit since George W. Bush inaugurated them in Waco in 2005 amid great hoopla and high hopes, but the first in three years as U.S. relations with its neighbors have declined in priority.
Known as the “Three Amigos” summits in the Bush years, the summits once featured so much talk of continental coordination and so many dreams of a trading behemoth that conspiracy theorists on the far right had a field day warning of lost sovereignty and erased borders. But the conspiracists have breathed easier since Obama’s inauguration, celebrating the loudest in 2009 when the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), which was created at the first summit, quietly announced it was “no longer an active initiative.”
But, while the SPP is no more, the trading and regulatory issues that spawned it, remain. The U.S. ambassador to Canada complains frequently about the Cheerios he eats every morning for breakfast, citing them as an example of the many trade irritants between the United States and its northern neighbor. When he goes south of the border, his Cheerios are fortified with vitamins and minerals. But when he is at the embassy in Ottawa, he has to eat Canadian Cheerios without those vitamins and minerals. “I feel neither healthier nor cheerier in one country or the other,” he complained last month to the Financial Post. Similarly, Jacobson cannot buy the same can of Campbells soup in Canada. Americans like 16-ounce soup cans; Canadians require the cans to hold 19 ounces. The result is the makers of Campbells and Cheerios must spend the money to build duplicative plants and assembly lines.
The SPP was supposed to address such issues in a trilateral way, harmonizing regulations across the continent. But since Obama’s election, the three countries have reverted to talks involving only two countries at a time leading the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Mexico Institute recently to spend a day examining “whether trilateralism is dead” and assessing the negative economic impact on the United States.
Hopes are not high for Monday’s summit to recapture some of the excitement that surrounded that first Three Amigos gathering in Waco. “The administration has been extremely effective in lowering our expectations,” joked Robert A. Pastor, director of the Center for North American Studies at American University, and the leading expert on continental issues. Pastor praises Obama for hosting the summit after there were none in 2010 and 2011, even while acknowledging that some of the recent sessions were “largely empty summits.” (The 2011 summit was scheduled for Hawaii but was cancelled after a helicopter crash killed a top official in Calderon’s cabinet.)
“It did appear as if George W. Bush cared much more about North America than is the case with Obama,” he told National Journal. “But I think Obama deserves credit for holding this. I was beginning to fear that the North American leaders’ summit was just going to disappear.” But Pastor said the White House is missing opportunities in the region.
Pastor said Obama has met often enough with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to understand “that neighbors are important.” But, he added, “I just don’t see a vision of the North American future in this administration at all... There are a couple of people in this administration who have some sense of it. But most of them don’t.” He faulted Obama for devoting more attention to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks in Asia than to this continent, which is responsible for far more trade. “We have a trillion dollars in trade here... and an extraordinarily high degree of economic integration that people just don’t know.” He added that the top two markets for U.S. goods are Canada and Mexico and the top two sources of energy imports to the United States are also Canada and Mexico.
Most analysts blame Harper as much as Obama for the delays in negotiating harmonized regulations and border security agreements, noting that the Canadian prime minister has been resistant to talks involving Mexico, as if he doesn’t want any taint from the drug cartel violence in that country. That has blocked agreements on non-tariff barriers, a uniform set of customs forms and travel IDs, as well as any infrastructure plans and uniform disposition of hazardous wastes.
The White House has cast Monday’s summit as preparation for the larger gathering of hemispheric leaders, the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. Press Secretary Jay Carney kept his talk of the goals for the smaller summit very general. “This meeting,” he said, “will build on wide-ranging and ongoing cooperation among the United States, Canada and Mexico with a particular focus on economic growth and competitiveness, citizen security, energy and climate change.”
Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met with his counterparts from Canada and Mexico to discuss improved cooperation in fighting narcotics trafficking. Not on the official agenda but almost certain to come up in discussions with Obama are more familiar irritants in relations. Calderon almost certainly will bring up his longstanding complaints about how easy it is to buy guns along the border and smuggle them into Mexico as well as Mexican unhappiness with the treatment of Mexicans in the United States illegally. And Harper can be expected to voice his unhappiness over Obama’s failure to approve the Keystone pipeline.