By ANTONIO GARZA, former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico
On Thursday, Nov. 18, U.S. President Joe Biden hosted Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House for the North American Leaders’ Summit (NALS).
This was the first time the three leaders met together in person and the first so-called “Three Amigos” summit since the end of President Barack Obama’s second term. Overall, it appeared to be a constructive dialogue on a variety of issues, but there were no big takeaways or announcements.
The summit was pulled together amid a variety of pressing challenges surrounding the economy and trade, the covid-19 pandemic and regional migration, and it represented another step in Biden’s goal to reinstitutionalize relations abroad and more fully integrate North America as a counterbalance to China.
The first item on the agenda was competitiveness and equitable growth, and following the summit, the three countries plan to create a working group to further integrate the continent’s supply chain. The atmosphere creating urgency for the summit included the ballooning rate of U.S. inflation, which recently hit a 31-year high as employers continue to face labor shortages and supply chain-related challenges.
The impact of these challenges are reverberating throughout the region. This quarter, the Mexican economy shrank 0.2 percent as compared to the previous quarter, marking the first contraction since recovery from the pandemic began. Due to U.S. consumer price inflation and the Central Bank of Mexico’s increase in interest rates, the Mexican peso sank and is now expected to continue to erode in 2022.
There were several sources of tension going into the summit. Most notably, the leaders discussed Biden administration’s proposal to offer consumers tax credit for U.S.-produced electric cars, which has created ripples in the trilateral relationship. Mexico and Canada are concerned that the credit would incentivize automakers to move their factories to the United States and allege that this move could violate the terms of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USCMA). Canadian Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said the proposal risks becoming “the dominant issue in our bilateral relationship” and Mexico’s economy secretary rebuked the United States for pursuing protectionist policies. Other trade irritants between the leaders included the Michigan-Canada pipeline, a lumber dispute and Canada’s dairy industry.
Tension has also run high over López Obrador’s proposed electricity bill that reverses Mexico’s 2013 Energy Reform that increased private sector participation and would give the state-owned electricity company more than 50 percent of the market share. Taking a proactive approach to one of the thorniest bilateral issues, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar recently met with the Mexican government to express “serious concerns”. Additionally, U.S. lawmakers urged Biden to address this issue in the summit. While the energy bill was not addressed publicly, it was most certainly discussed behind closed doors.
The three leaders also addressed strategies to combat climate change, including a North American pledge to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector and technical cooperation on renewables. The summit came on the heels of COP26 in Glasgow, where the United States and Canada took centerstage in their commitments and declarations. While López Obrador recently declared Mexico an ally for the United States on climate change, his rhetoric on the issue has not always matched his actions.
The leaders’ second priority was collaboration on the covid-19 pandemic, and Mexico and Canada pledged to share millions of vaccine doses with other countries. Earlier this month, the Biden administration lifted air and land border restrictions for travelers fully vaccinated with doses approved by the World Health Organization (WHO). While one out of every two Mexicans is fully vaccinated, not all of the vaccines used in Mexico are WHO-approved. In Washington, the Mexican government pushed for the universal recognition of vaccines and for the United States to loosen testing requirements.
The third item on the summit agenda was a regional strategy on migration. Discussions focused on proposals to expand work visas, refugee resettlement and other legal pathways, including for individuals displaced by climate and victims of trafficking.
Officials said that border policies were not on the agenda, largely because the Biden administration has struggled to lay out a coherent vision for its immigration policy. Reports indicate that Biden’s uncertain approach stems primarily from disagreements at the highest levels within his administration over an appropriate path forward. Earlier in the week, the administration said that it will reimplement the Donald Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) that it suspended earlier this year within “the coming weeks” due to pending litigation.
On the foreign policy front, in the days leading up to the summit, it appeared that Biden intended to ask Trudeau and López Obrador to join him in demanding the Cuban government respect its citizens pushing for greater freedom on the island. However, it’s not clear if Biden followed through with the request during the meeting. Such an ask would not have been favorably received by López Obrador, who has repeatedly stated his support for the Cuban regime.
As has been the case with all previous North American Leaders’ Summits, its success depends on post-summit follow-through and continued dialogue. However, it is important to note that Mexico has already announced it will host the next summit in 2022.
ANTONIO GARZA is a U.S. lawyer who served as his country’s ambassador to Mexico between 2002 and 2009. In recognition of his work, in 2009, the Mexican government bestowed on him the Águila Azteca, the highest award granted to foreigners. Prior to his appointment as ambassador, Garza served as Texas’ secretary of state from January 1995 to November 1997 and was also chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission. He is currently a lawyer specializing in cross-border issues at White & Case, which was recently named the most innovative firm in North America for 2020 by the Financial Times. He is also currently a director at both Kansas City Southern and MoneyGram.