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Twenty years ago, Americans and a lot of Canadians tuned in on a November evening to watch Larry King host what turned out to be seminal debate on free trade. It pitted then U.S. vice president Al Gore against Ross Perot.

Mr. Perot, the irascible Texan, was riding a wave of popular discontent with his warning that Americans should listen for a 'giant sucking sound going south' as jobs fled to the Mexican maquiladoras. The appeal netted him 19 per cent of the popular vote in the 1992 election, making him the most successful third party challenger since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912.

Gore dismembered Perot in debate and subsequently, support for the Clinton administration's NAFTA legislation rose from 34 per cent to 57 per cent; the debate contributed to its passage a week later in the House of Representatives.

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NAFTA worked.

All three nations enjoyed a decade of prosperity that created jobs and balanced budgets. North America's share of world trade rose to 36 per cent before receding, in face of recession and the rise of Asia, to 25 per cent.

Unfortunately, the continued fear-mongering of Mr. Perot, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan – described by Republican leader Bob Michel as the 'Groucho, Chico and Harpo of the opposition' – took root in the United States. Flaring up during presidential primaries, NAFTA became, inaccurately, a code word for job loss.

After Sept. 11, security trumped trade as the U.S. ramped up its border presence, tripling budgets to build walls on its southern border and launching drones to patrol its northern frontier.

NAFTA leaders' meetings, when held, have become competing conversations – one between the Canadian prime minister and the U.S. president and the other between the U.S. and Mexican presidents.

By necessity, the energy for trilateral reform requires the personal leadership of the U.S. president as both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton demonstrated on NAFTA.

George W. Bush launched the Security and Prosperity Initiative, but its scope was too broad and the vigor required was too little. Barack Obama shelved it, endorsing a bigger deal with the Pacific, as part of the U.S. pivot, or rebalance, towards Asia.

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Given the deep economic integration, it would have made more sense for President Obama to caucus first with his North American counterparts. If you can't define a relationship with your neighbours, how can you define a relationship with the world?

Our political leadership sometimes fails to appreciate what our business community already understands: Our mutual competitiveness depends on working together.

Global positioning starts with getting our act together in the neighborhood.

Bob Pastor, tireless champion of the North American idea, recently hosted a conference in Washington that brought together business, legislators, civil society and the key officials from all three countries.

The conference released a survey showing that in all three countries there is strong support for trilateral free trade.

A series of practical suggestions were offered including:

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- Resurrecting a high-level business advisory group that is more than just a photo opportunity.

- Given that there is no appetite or money for the new institutions, using more effectively those already in place, notably the Commission on Environmental Cooperation, and the moribund Commission for Labor Cooperation.

- Develop a North American climate strategy that the leaders can take to the international table. Why not, for example, an international price on carbon, starting with North America?

- Better high-level coordination within government and across governments (including states, provinces and cities) to maximize and sustain continental collaboration.

A coalition to inform and educate at the regional and community level will be led by the highly effective Pacific Northwest Economic Region and the Border Trade Alliance.

The recent announcement by U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo and International Trade Minister Ministers Ed Fast to work on a 'constructive agenda' is encouraging. It needs to look at better coordinating infrastructure and transportation grids, including pipelines, roads, rail and ports.

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A take-away from the recent Canadian American Business Council conference in Ottawa is the requirement for a continental approach to talent, including co-ordinating training and skills development.

There are other efforts underway, including a Council of Foreign Relations Task Force led by David Petraeus and Robert Zoellick. They should start by reading the CFR's 2005 report led by co-chairs John Manley, Pedro Aspe and William Weld.

Twenty years on, the best tribute to NAFTA's enduring success would be a forward-looking strategy. Next spring the leaders will meet in Mexico. Their challenge: a plan to build a North American century.

Colin Robertson is a former diplomat, vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a senior advisor to McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP.

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