Getting Down to the Business of Action
By EARL ANTHONY WAYNE, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico
The North American Leaders Summit (NALS) between U.S. President Joe Biden, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which took place in Washington, D.C., last Thursday, Nov. 18, covered an ample agenda of trinational topics, including the economy, borders, migration, health and security. The leaders agreed to a long list of deliverables. Now the focus shifts to doing the work agreed upon.
The summit constituted the first of its kind since 2016. The leaders of the United States, Canada and Mexico set an agenda that could power all three countries to rebound more effectively from the pandemic’s effects and unlock the important potential of better cooperation across the continent.
Biden, Trudeau and López Obrador were positioned to greatly increase collaboration: 1) to support rebuilding from pandemic’s blows to the continent’s deeply integrated value chains and industries; 2) to improve North America’s competitiveness vis-à-vis China and others; 3) to invest in North America’s workforces as technology transforms industries; 4) to address creatively climate change and green energy transformations; and 5) to better deal with daunting challenges such as migration, cybersecurity and cross-border crime.
Getting U.S.-Canada-Mexico cooperation right would give a big boost to all three countries. From an economic perspective, Canada, Mexico and the United State share one of the world’s strongest commercial and coproduction networks, with about $2 million in trade per minute crossing their shared borders. That trade supports over 12 million jobs for U.S. workers and farmers, and millions more in Canada and Mexico.
The United States’ neighbors are its largest export markets and the two countries with which the U.S. coproduces more final products than any others in the world. The three must work well to implement the recent U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) on trade and to take supplemental steps to boost the continent’s economic potential as technology and industries evolve.
Relations between these countries touch the daily lives of many millions of their citizens. Those deep connections offer benefits and often raise serious political concerns in each country. If the governments can manage relations and challenges well, however, cooperation can have big positive effects in countering deadly cross-border crime in drugs, better handling future pandemics, building more resilient and reliable supply chains for industries and farmers, confronting climate change and transforming sectors to more efficient and greener industries, for example. Internationally, a more aligned North America will be better able to compete well in the global marketplace. Citizens of all three countries will benefit.
Some of the needed work will be done bilaterally, between the United States and Mexico in the High-Level Economic and Security Dialogues, and between the United States and Canada in the Renewed U.S.-Canada Partnership — but the trilateral value that was added at the summit can be significant.
The meeting offered the opportunity for the three leaders to reset a forward-looking action agenda. There is much common ground — but also differences to address. On energy, the environment and climate, for example, López Obrador favors a strong state role in the energy sector and does not seem as committed to environmental action as are Trudeau and Biden.
The United States and Canada are concerned that López Obrador’s proposed energy sector reforms would violate USMCA commitments and harm their companies. Canada and Mexico are concerned that some U.S. proposals to “Buy American” and to implement USMCA rules could violate USMCA commitments. In the months ahead, the leaders will need to resolve differences while forging a common agenda.
The potential inherent in a better partnership has led many to advocate for even more concerted and sustained cooperation. At the North American Leaders Summits in 2014 and 2016, leaders approved an impressive set of initiatives that were reiterated in this year’s meeting and which should remain priority themes. They include promoting North American competitiveness, deepening cooperation on education and innovation, and enhancing regulatory collaboration in cutting-edge and integrated sectors such as autos. They also build shared commitments on clean energy and climate change. The previous summits began work on establishing more compatible, modern trade and travel processes and transportation system planning.
The years since have underscored the wisdom of cooperation and have added priorities. This year’s fresh agenda included applying lessons from supply chain disruptions during the pandemic, as well as from the (mis)handling of health collaboration and border management. The three governments must now collaborate on investing in upskilling their workforces.
Working together, the leaders can dive into other issues that are vital for North America’s future, such as the development and deployment of electric vehicles (EVs). EVs will transform the auto sector, which is the quintessential North American industry because of its deep integration. The governments can support this evolution, whether it be on the supply chain of critical minerals, the development of battery and semiconductor production, or the provision of affordable “green” energy and needed recycling. And they must continue serious conversations about how to manage climate change, even if differences persist.
With a robust action agenda blessed by the leaders, the three governments could now work with private and citizen stakeholders who are so essential to success in achieving concrete advances for North America. This work between leaders’ meetings will be vital for building and sustaining progress. In the aftermath of the summit, the moment is ripe to create a robust North American work plan and help all three countries rebound from the pandemic and demonstrate the promise of cooperation.
Former ambassador EARL ANTHOY WAYNE is a diplomat-in-residence at American University’s School of International Service and advisory board co-chair for the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. He was a U.S. diplomat for 40 years.
A version of the above article first appeared in The Hill and is being reproduced with express prior permission in Pulse News Mexico.