It's Justin Trudeau's big North American moment this week, as he hosts the presidents of the United States and Mexico for a summit that is supposed to mark warmer continental ties. But the Three Amigos' real task is now to make a statement to counter the Amexit campaign.
Donald Trump's presidential campaign isn't exactly a referendum on leaving NAFTA, but he has told Americans he'd tear up the deal, impose high tariffs on Mexican goods, build a wall on the southern border and trade North American continentalism for, as he says, "policies that put our citizens first." It's North America's Brexit.
The Trump campaign trades on many of the same sentiments, turning a mistrust of a tide of immigrants into a call for control over national borders, and, in fact, Mr. Trump's campaign is far more anti-trade than Britain's Leavers. Mr. Trump himself was quick to react to Britain's vote to leave the European Union, saying on Friday that Americans have their own "independence day" in November, when they can "reject today's rule by the global elite."
So who will offer an opposing narrative about North America? Not Hillary Clinton. The presumptive Democratic nominee turned cold on NAFTA to respond to primary challenger Bernie Sanders; in U.S. politics, NAFTA, and the idea of a North American bloc, is now toxic. It won't come from congressional candidates: They are competing with protectionist rhetoric that promises an anti-trade-bloc wave, no matter who is elected president.
Enter the Three Amigos. Mr. Trudeau, U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto have a duty to make the summit some kind of statement on the value of North American co-operation.
For Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Pena Nieto, fostering that narrative is a national interest. The prospect of new waves of arbitrary U.S. tariffs tollgating trade at the border would be devastating for trade and investment in both countries. The border-control sentiment in the U.S. is aimed largely at Mexicans, but Canadians know that U.S. border restrictions tend to turn into headaches for them. Rising isolationist sentiment in the U.S. can block co-ordination on climate-change and energy policies, making them less effective for all three.
Of course, neither Mr. Trudeau nor Mr. Pena Nieto can take that fight directly into the U.S. presidential election campaign. That's the political equivalent of sticking one's head in a wood chipper, and it's unlikely either foreign leader could get his message through the noise, anyway. But it's now critical they start forming the narrative and finding American friends to repeat it.
The Prime Minister campaigned on repairing North American ties, insisting they are key to Canada's economy and foreign policy. He plans to use this summit to highlight his warm relationship with Mr. Obama and Mr. Pena Nieto, who both developed chilly relationships with former PM Stephen Harper. But with Mr. Obama in his last months in office, forming a pro-North America narrative, and campaigning to spread it, must be at the core of his foreign policy.
It has to be more than a pro-NAFTA message. The value of a strong neighbourhood, where Americans can expect reliable rules and co-operation, and provide the same, has to be sold. Mr. Trudeau, who talks of sharing the opportunities of globalization, had better find a North American voice.
And of course there's the sitting U.S. president. Mr. Obama has never been a NAFTA booster and has devoted little energy to North America. Mr. Harper might argue he hurt continental co-operation by quashing the Keystone XL pipeline. But he has bully-pulpit influence, at least for Democrats, and his own interest in countering Mr. Trump's isolationism. Mr. Trudeau should be leaning on him.
In the meantime, this summit will have modest North American co-operation. There will be trilateral initiatives on climate change and energy. That could be a starting ground for North American co-operation with a Clinton administration, if Mr. Trump loses. But no matter who becomes the next president, Canada can expect to be fighting a defensive action on trade.
Can it go as far as Amexit, with Mr. Trump tearing up NAFTA? Other U.S. presidential candidates have trash-talked NAFTA but retained it once in office. But after Brexit, with Mr. Trump, who can be sure? Mr. Trudeau's task now, and the Three Amigos', is to speak up for North American ties.