A summit meeting of the American president and his counterparts from Canada and Mexico should be a substantial affair, reflecting, for starters, the increasing integration of the three national economies. Think products of North America, and a stronger position globally for each country. Yet when President Obama, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Enrique Pena Nieto gathered in Toluca, Mexico last week, they had little on their agenda.
That was a disappointment, driven largely by politics, a considerable share emanating from Washington. The meeting might have been a moment for Obama and Harper to talk about moving forward with the Keystone pipeline, carrying oil from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. Yet the American president still has been navigating the tricky political waters, uncertain which Democratic interest group he will cross.
Obama and President Pena Nieto might have applauded progress in repairing the American immigration system. Few issues are more important to Mexico and the United States. Yet the prospects for action this year on Capitol Hill have faded, even though a bipartisan majority approved legislation in the Senate and House Republican leaders appeared to give enough ground to reveal the shape of a compromise.
What the summit did yield was a set of smaller steps. President Obama will move ahead with executive orders aimed at speeding up imports and exports by easing bureaucratic obstacles. The three leaders unveiled a “trusted traveller” program that will permit business executives and other pre-screened individuals to move more easily among the countries.
These and other initiatives point to the integration taking place, spurred by the North American Free Trade Agreement the past 20 years. They also suggest how the potential for a more productive partnership.
For too long, the United States has resisted compliance with the NAFTA provision allowing Mexican truckers to cross the border and deliver to a final destination. The result, in part, is a cumbersome process involving shifts in drivers and cargo that often bring prolonged delays. More, such problems are aggravated by an imbalance in investment, priority given to border security at the expense of upgrading infrastructure at the border to support trade.
The summit meeting also devoted too little time to forming a Trans Pacific Partnership, the United States, Canada and Mexico looking to expand trade with Asian countries. The effort has been set back by Democrats in Congress balking at the necessary negotiating authority for the president. Yet the negotiations present an opportunity to do more than open markets. The invitation is there to improve and refine the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The United States fumbled in failing to include Canada and Mexico from the start. Washington still hasn’t brought its continental partners into discussion of a transatlantic agreement. Here, too, it makes sense to do so, Canada and Mexico already having trade deals with the European Union. For the United States, the prospect holds promise, of new markets for exports, plus an additional platform for strengthening economic bonds in North America, the continent in a better position to prosper in the global economy.