Steep economic decline, rising public insecurity, and the resurgence of swine flu threaten North America today. As U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper head to Guadalajara, Mexico to meet with President Felipe Calderon, the agenda looks quite difficult. Add to this the equivocal support within the U.S. government for free trade, and the outlook for this summit looks grim. Yet now more than ever we need to appreciate the real lessons of NAFTA, and focus on our own neighborhood. All three countries will benefit from working together rather than moving apart.
Often maligned in all three countries, NAFTA has, on balance, benefited the region. By creating one of the largest trading blocks in the world, this trade agreement not only tripled regional trade and generated an estimated 40 million new jobs during its first fifteen years, but also helped spur similar agreements world wide. Even as economic recession frightens North American citizens, it is precisely the growth of free trade that will be the basis for economic recovery in all three countries. All efforts should be made to support its progress, resolve underlying disputes, and limit the barriers to economic integration.
Security too is a growing concern for all three North American leaders. While bloodshed so far has been concentrated in Mexico, Canadian and American citizens have also been caught up in the violence and the reach of organized crime and drug networks is apparent throughout the region. President Calderon has made a commitment to radically reduce the power of the drug cartels, but no unilateral solution is possible. The Guadalajara summit provides an opportunity to think creatively about cooperative action to address Mexico’s current challenge. Canada, as well as its NGOs , academic, and corporate communities, has a significant history of supporting democratization processes, fighting crime and corruption, and building institutions in the Commonwealth Caribbean. Lessons learned there could be helpful in dealing with similar issues on a much larger scale in its North American partnerships.
The most vivid recent example of the indelible ties between the North American nations – and the real benefits gained from close cooperation – occurred this last April with the discovery of the H1N1 virus. The spread of this flu respected no boundaries. Luckily, the response too crossed borders. With the initial cases found in Mexico, Canadian scientists first cracked the genetic makeup of the virus. As the virus spread, Canada and the United States sent epidemiologists to Mexico, who worked side by side investigating and controlling the outbreak. The three nations continue to share all data on the virus and its development in an unprecedented manner, and should use this moment to prepare together for the possible return of H1N1 this fall.
Joint programs and collaborative action to address climate change, environmental degradation, and renewable energy initiatives will make faster and deeper progress than individual activity in these areas. Mexico and the US announced in April a bilateral framework on clean energy and climate change. In July Canada announced that it will match US restrictions on greenhouse emissions. Just as NAFTA served as a catalyst for other extensive trade agreements, the US, Canada and Mexico should set the standard for regional cooperation on the global issues of climate change, cooperation in developing renewable energy technologies, and controlling carbon emissions.
Perhaps as important as the substance of trilateral relations going forward is the process. North American summits have suffered in recent years from the perception of exclusivity. As President Obama has done in other realms, it is time to open the process to a broad array of citizens, non-governmental organizations, labor unions, and private sector organizations. The recent Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago gave a strong voice and platform to these groups, as many leaders and their ministers attended a wide variety of events and discussions on regional initiatives with presentations from aboriginal groups, a youth forum, and a regional business forum in addition to the formal plenary summit sessions. A more inclusive process would provide both a broader set of ideas and solutions, as well as greater support for summit outcomes.
As the three leaders head to their summit, they face significant tasks. Yet this is a time to take on the many challenging issues ahead, addressing issues concerning the environment, labor, and energy, and expanding on issues of most pressing concern to all three countries – economic recovery and security most importantly. The intertwining of peoples, businesses, and communities has brought these populations together; it is time the governments caught up. This Trilateral Summit presents an ideal opportunity to start this process.