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What Harper and Obama actually achieved in their Mexico meeting

Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes part in a joint press conference with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto at the National Palace in Mexico City on Feb. 18, 2014.

SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Never mind that U.S. President Barack Obama preferred to have a few friends over for movies in the East Wing the previous evening and then fly down and back to Toluca the same day – limiting the long-overdue 'Three Amigos' summit to a scant few hours.

Overlook for the moment that the President's bilateral with Prime Minister Harper was reduced to a short walk in the park.

Forget that Mexicans – bitterly offended over being treated like untrustworthy aliens needing visas to visit Canada, a supposedly close and valued trading partner two decades after NAFTA was signed – got little joy from Mr. Harper's three-day sojourn south of the Rio Grande.

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And set aside that Mr. Obama, as promised, told Mr. Harper exactly in private what U.S. officials has been saying publicly – that no matter how shrill and insistent Canadian demands for a Keystone XL decision from Foreign Minister John Baird and others – there's a decision-making process under way and the President will, at a time of his choosing and in the U.S. national interest, make up his mind about the pipeline.

It would be easy to dismiss the Three Amigos conclave as hardly friendly, let alone productive.

In fact, after years of neglect, a largely moribund framework may have been given new life.

There was "a level of enthusiasm and a level of achievement at this summit that had not been present in recent years," said Roberta Jacobsen, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Of course, senior officials assessing summits post-facto for the media rarely dismiss an event as a failure or disclose that the principals can barely stand each other.

But Ms. Jacobsen has been involved in all of the Three Amigos series of summits and she was cautiously and convincingly upbeat.

Using careful phraseology, Ms. Jacobsen nonetheless conceded that not much has been achieved for years. But in Toluca, the three leaders – whatever the bilateral irritants – actually seemed in concert in a shared vision to breathe new life into the North American trilateral relationship.

"I don't think any of them would deny that we haven't been moving as fast as we would like over the last few years," Ms. Jacobsen said Friday in a post-summit session for journalists.

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That the leaders set out a series of ambitious goals to transform the trilateral relationship from a trading bloc into something more may take years to assess but it stands in contrast to the simple verdict that not much was achieved.

"The push really did come from the leaders," said Ricardo Zuniga, special assistant to the President and senior director for western hemisphere affairs. Added: Ms. Jacobsen, "as a bureaucrat sitting at the table with the leaders, it was also a pretty swift kick in the pants for the bureaucracy, to get these things done."

If that push is sustained then sweeping changes could be in store for the North American continent. A single set of standards could apply to truck shifting goods throughout all three countries. A single security clearance issued to "trusted travellers" would mean seamless movement for thousands, perhaps 10s of thousands, of citizens from all three countries anywhere in North America. (How that quite fits with Canada's visa imposition on Mexicans will be a challenge for bureaucrats.)

Among the other objectives are a continental transportation plan, data sharing on human trafficking, recognizing educational and professional qualifications, fostering student exchanges, using the continent's energy boom to help poor Central American and Caribbean countries and cutting greenhouse-gas emissions even if the rest of the world dithers.

If the political will really exists to harmonize regulatory and security systems to foster freer movement of people as well as goods, then chumminess may be the wrong measure of the success of the Three Amigos summit.

"What we are really trying to do now is to take parallel bilateral processes and make them truly trilateral." Ms. Jacobsen said. "We were honestly, content to look at progress that was bilateral for quite a while and what (the three leaders said to us in Toluca) is let get it done trilaterally."

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Paul Koring reports from the Washington bureau.

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