David Jacobson was the U.S. ambassador to Canada from 2009 to 2013 and is vice-chair, BMO Financial Group. Earl Anthony Wayne was the U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2011 to 2015 and is co-chair of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute Advisory Board and a Distinguished Diplomat in Residence at American University’s School of International Service.
The leaders of the United States, Canada and Mexico will meet Nov. 18 for a North American Leaders’ Summit, or NALS. The agenda will be big and important for this first three-way meeting of the North American partners since 2016.
As former United States ambassadors to Canada and Mexico, it has been our privilege to be in the room for past NALS. We have seen how they focus the whole of governments in the three countries. We have seen the progress that only a summit can achieve. When leaders meet and talk, things get done. The time is ripe to take such steps forward again.
Priorities for collaboration include North America’s competitiveness, its ability to learn from the pandemic and rebuild better, its approach to deepening climate-change challenges, collaboration on migration and enhanced homeland security and much more. Effective co-operation can bring big benefits, and so much rides on a successful summit.
Canada, Mexico and the U.S. have one of the strongest commercial and production networks in the world, with about $2-million in trade crossing their shared borders each minute. That trade supports more than 12 million jobs for workers and farmers in the U.S. alone. If the states and provinces along the borders – U.S.-Canada or U.S.-Mexico – were a separate country, either cluster would rank as the third-largest gross domestic product in the world, after the U.S. and China. North America has great economic power that can be even better harnessed for good.
Importantly, relations between these countries are quintessentially “intermestic” – they embody challenges and opportunities that are simultaneously domestic and international. They touch the daily lives of millions of citizens. How well the countries work together has a significant impact on the well-being and security for each of them. A more aligned North America will also be better able to compete in the global marketplace.
The coming leaders meeting is an important opportunity to connect, communicate, set goals and plan. There are and will be differences of approach on some issues. Mexico’s President has a very different opinion of the state’s role in the energy sector. Canada’s Prime Minister and Mexico’s President have concerns about so-called “Buy America” provisions. Some important issues will be better handled bilaterally. However, much good can be done if the leaders can forge a common trilateral work agenda on issues that affect the continent.
We saw good results from the North American Leaders’ Summits in 2014 and 2016. At those gatherings, the leaders agreed on a series of forward-looking proposals that included promoting North American competitiveness; promoting co-operation on innovation and technology; regulatory collaboration in key sectors; clean energy and climate change partnerships; work to modernize and improve cross-border trade and travel processes; and ways to address migration and development challenges in Central America. It was an impressive trilateral work agenda that regrettably was largely put aside after 2016.
Much has changed in the years since. A fresh NALS agenda should also include seriously learning and applying lessons from the supply chain disruptions during the pandemic, as well as from the ways in which North America (mis)handled health collaboration and border management. The governments need to double down on investing in their people and work force with collaboration on best practices, especially as industries evolve and demand new skills. The leaders also cannot meet without serious conversations about how to better manage climate change and support greener industries such as electric vehicles, even if they may have differences.
We look forward to the meeting and to an updated, robust action agenda endorsed by leaders, with, we hope, a commitment to further summits. Nothing focuses the collective minds of bureaucracies in all three countries like the deadline of an important meeting of their leaders. While the eyes of the news media are focused on the announcements of the day, it’s the dialogue that takes place before, during and after a NALS – within and between governments – that fosters the understanding, learning and concrete actions that can generate serious advances. The mechanisms set up serve as catalysts for continued progress.
Harry Truman once said that “in order to have good neighbours, we must also be good neighbours.” That is wise counsel for today and the years ahead. We have a Canadian government with a fresh mandate, a relatively new U.S. administration, and more than two years remaining for the Mexican government. It’s time to showcase and address the critical issues that our deeply interconnected countries face. None of the three can do this alone. It’s time for a successful North American Leaders’ Summit and a robust North American work plan.
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