Why There Won’t Be a ‘Three Amigos’ Summit This Time Around

Obama will meet with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts, but don’t expect a lot of hugs.

National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Feb. 18, 2014, 12:26 a.m.

When Pres­id­ent Obama flies to Mex­ico on Wed­nes­day to meet with his North Amer­ic­an coun­ter­parts, he’ll be re­viv­ing a con­tin­ent­al lead­ers’ meet­ing that George W. Bush en­vi­sioned as an an­nu­al event when he hos­ted the first one in 2005. That one went so well it was dubbed the “Three Ami­gos Sum­mit.” Then-Mex­ic­an Pres­id­ent Vi­cente Fox praised Bush, say­ing he had “mastered the tra­di­tion­al male hug of Mex­ic­an cul­ture, the ab­razo.”

But Obama is not really the hug­ging kind. And he, Mex­ic­an Pres­id­ent En­rique Peña Ni­eto, and Ca­na­dian Prime Min­is­ter Steph­en Harp­er are not really act­ing much like ami­gos these days. So don’t ex­pect a lot of ab­razos dur­ing Obama’s time in Tolu­ca, the cap­it­al of the state of Mex­ico, about 40 miles south­w­est of Mex­ico City. There are prob­lems among the lead­ers of the con­tin­ent’s three coun­tries.

Wash­ing­ton is dis­pleased that Peña Ni­eto blocked most of the Amer­ic­an se­cur­ity co­oper­a­tion after he took of­fice a little more than a year ago and is con­cerned about the con­tin­ued high levels of vi­ol­ent crime and kid­nap­pings in Mex­ico. Mex­ico City is dis­pleased that Obama has failed to push through im­mig­ra­tion re­form in the United States. And Ot­t­awa is dis­pleased that Obama has taken five years to make up his mind on its pro­posed Key­stone XL pipeline in­to the United States with still no de­cision in sight. Fur­ther set­ting the at­mo­sphere for the one-day sum­mit, Mex­ico is dis­pleased with Ca­na­dian visa policy, and the two coun­tries cur­rently have what Duncan Wood, dir­ect­or of the Mex­ico In­sti­tute at the Wilson Cen­ter, calls “rather frosty re­la­tions.” There are, said Wood, “a num­ber of ten­sions which have emerged among all the coun­tries,” not­ing un­hap­pi­ness by the oth­er lead­ers at the NSA rev­el­a­tions as well as on­go­ing trade dis­putes.

The sched­ule calls for Obama to meet sep­ar­ately with Peña Ni­eto soon after ar­riv­ing in the Mex­ic­an pres­id­ent’s ho­met­own. Then, after a lunch with both of the oth­er lead­ers, the U.S. pres­id­ent will have what the White House is call­ing a “walk and talk” with Harp­er. That will be fol­lowed by a ses­sion with busi­ness lead­ers and ex­perts on North Amer­ica. Then, the three lead­ers will sit down for the ac­tu­al sum­mit meet­ing and a con­clud­ing press con­fer­ence where the lead­ers are ex­pec­ted to be pressed on the dif­fer­ences they want to keep out of pub­lic view.

Com­ing on the 20th an­niversary of the North Amer­ic­an Free Trade Agree­ment, the White House sees this sum­mit as a nat­ur­al for­um for dis­cuss­ing the next step in trade — the on­go­ing ne­go­ti­ations of the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship. Both Canada and Mex­ico have joined the TPP talks in the last two years. “We are ob­vi­ously at a crit­ic­al point in work­ing to­wards fi­nal­iz­ing an am­bi­tious trade agree­ment “¦ that would en­com­pass roughly 40 per­cent of the glob­al eco­nomy in the TPP coun­tries,” a seni­or U.S. of­fi­cial said last week, call­ing the talks “an op­por­tun­ity to build on the work that was done in NAF­TA by in­tro­du­cing ad­di­tion­al stand­ards,”

What Ca­na­dian news­pa­pers have called the “drift” apart of Harp­er and Obama could make this the first North Amer­ic­an Lead­ers Sum­mit at which Amer­ic­an fric­tion with Canada threatens to over­shad­ow the usu­ally dom­in­ant dif­fer­ences between Wash­ing­ton and Mex­ico City. But that would re­quire Harp­er to do something no Ca­na­dian lead­er has done since Prime Min­is­ter Pierre Trudeau used to be­dev­il Pres­id­ent Re­agan. So Obama and Harp­er most likely will keep their dif­fer­ences out of pub­lic view.

“Canada has been very frus­trated over the years that the Key­stone de­cision has been put off, delayed,” said Joshua Meltzer, an ex­pert on glob­al trade at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. He ex­pects Harp­er “to push a little bit” to get Obama to move faster now that the State De­part­ment has is­sued its find­ings on the cli­mate im­pact of the pipeline. But Ar­turo Sarukhan, the former Mex­ic­an am­bas­sad­or to the United States who helped pre­pare sev­er­al of the pre­vi­ous Three Ami­gos sum­mits, said the is­sue “will not pop up” in the form­al talks among the three lead­ers.

“As someone who spent the past six years sort of or­gan­iz­ing and prep­ping for these tri­lat­er­al sum­mits, you usu­ally try to pre­vent the bi­lat­er­al agenda from seep­ing in­to the tri­lat­er­al “¦ be­cause it de­tracts from the more glob­al, hol­ist­ic North Amer­ic­an dis­cus­sions,” said Sarukhan. He said Key­stone is one of those is­sues that “you tend to try and push to the side­lines.”

U.S. of­fi­cials in­sist the pres­id­ent will tell Harp­er ex­actly what he has been say­ing in pub­lic — that the pro­cess has to play out. “What Pres­id­ent Obama will do is ex­plain to him where we are in the re­view of the Key­stone pipeline, and in­dic­ate that we’ll of course let our Ca­na­dian friends know when we’ve ar­rived at a de­cision,” said the seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial.

“Key­stone is one of those things where every­body sort of knows every­body’s po­s­i­tion ex­cept for the pres­id­ent’s,” said An­drew Finn, an as­so­ci­ate at the Canada In­sti­tute. “It is no secret what the prime min­is­ter’s thoughts are on the pipeline. And I don’t know what value there is to bring it up in this type of for­um. So my guess would be that it doesn’t.”

The same be­hind-closed-doors fate likely awaits and can­did dis­cus­sion between Obama and Peña Ni­eto on U.S. im­mig­ra­tion policy and Mex­ico’s in­ab­il­ity to halt the blood­shed of the drug car­tels. The private se­cur­ity dis­cus­sion may be in­tense, though, re­flect­ing Amer­ic­an un­hap­pi­ness with Peña Ni­eto’s de­cision to scale back U.S. as­sist­ance. “The frus­tra­tion on se­cur­ity is­sues “¦ is sort of un­der­ly­ing and bub­bling un­der­neath,” said Vanda Fel­bab-Brown, a seni­or fel­low at Brook­ings. She said she ex­pects it to bet “very little at­ten­tion and pub­lic play” in the pub­lic com­ments at Tolu­ca. But, she said, “it will be in the back­ground. It’s a very im­port­ant un­re­solved and dif­fi­cult is­sue even if the lead­ers” is­sue pub­lic state­ments on more up­beat is­sues.

Obama and Peña Ni­eto will also, of course, talk about the status of im­mig­ra­tion re­form. But that dis­cus­sion is likely to be more pro forma. Peña Ni­eto already knows the an­swers and already un­der­stands why Obama has failed to push through the re­forms he has ad­voc­ated throughout his pres­id­ency.

Pub­licly, ex­pect to hear praise from Obama for re­forms pushed through by Peña Ni­eto, end­ing the state mono­poly on the en­ergy in­dustry, over­haul­ing edu­ca­tion and tax policy. The Mex­ico In­sti­tute’s Wood said Peña Ni­eto wants to make this sum­mit his show to high­light what he has done in his one year in of­fice. It’s “really go­ing to be a show­case for Pres­id­ent Peña Ni­eto to high­light the fact that Mex­ico has emerged as a strong re­gion­al part­ner that is look­ing to get equal treat­ment and due re­spect from the oth­er North Amer­ic­an coun­tries.”

That calls, of course, for at least a few ab­razos, though they may be less en­thu­si­ast­ic than those demon­strated by Bush and Fox at that 2005 sum­mit in Waco. And that’s why, pub­licly at least, the lead­ers will put on a friendly and cor­di­al face and keep the ser­i­ous fric­tions out of sight.

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