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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.S. President Joe Biden and Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador arrive for the North American Leaders' Summit in the East Room of the White House on Nov. 18.MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Kathryn Bryk Friedman is a global fellow at the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

In the weeks leading up to the North American Leaders’ Summit, held Thursday in Washington, hopes ran high that the United States, Canada and Mexico would reset the tradition of trilateral meetings established in 2005 by then-president George W. Bush, prime minister Paul Martin and president Vicente Fox. The hope was that the idea of a “North American community” would be reaffirmed and a bold vision crafted for all three countries to prosper in the future. At the summit, significant progress was made toward these goals.

The summit presented a renewed opportunity for leaders to meet face-to-face, with President Joe Biden in particular fulfilling a campaign commitment to strengthen North American co-operation. The three leaders committed to robust and ambitious “high-level” goals, including ending the COVID-19 pandemic, fostering competitiveness and creating conditions for equitable growth, and co-ordinating a regional response to migration.

Substance over symbolism abounded in the detailed agenda, which included updating pandemic responses, co-ordinating North American supply chains, promoting women’s entrepreneurship, addressing cybersecurity issues, creating a strategy to reduce methane emissions, and collaborating on racial equity measures. Importantly, the leaders pledged to develop a regional compact on migration, and to consider a partnership between the countries’ international development agencies.

Trudeau wins no concessions on Buy America from Biden

Recognizing the importance of voices outside Washington, Ottawa, and Mexico City, several steps specifically call for the participation of stakeholder communities. The leaders committed to work with North American states and cities on climate change, and to convene a meeting of Indigenous female leaders as part of a working group on violence against Indigenous women and girls. These commitments demonstrate recognition of the complexity of North America and the importance of perspectives outside the usual government channels.

All this being said, very real constraints or “irritants” remain. Specifically, with respect to the Canada-U.S. relationship, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took almost every opportunity to warn about the ramifications to the deeply integrated auto industry if the U.S. electric vehicle tax credit is passed as part of a legislative package.

The credit would give US$12,500 to buyers of U.S.-assembled electric vehicles. Much to the Prime Minister’s chagrin (and that of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador), Mr. Biden was non-committal. This should not be surprising, given he needed everyone on board in Congress to pass his large-scale social safety net legislation on Friday. He could not afford to lose any votes – which brings us to the reality of how domestic politics (and policy) are driving foreign policy in unprecedented ways.

What was missing from the summit deliverables? Notably, a co-ordinated border response is glaringly absent. This is curious, given the outcry on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border regarding the need for a streamlined approach to security, trade and public health. A co-ordinated border policy among the three countries would support the summit’s broad goals on health, competitiveness and migration.

The summit demonstrates the importance of collaboration among the United States, Canada and Mexico in an unsettling and increasingly chaotic world. It is in all of the countries’ interests to have a co-ordinated approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. A North American approach to equity and job growth will allow us to better compete globally, and a stable North America committed to migration protocols and human rights will serve as an example to the world.

This is not the “European model” of North America, with a large supranational bureaucracy in tow. North American collaboration is – and will continue to be – distinctly different.

But with the threat of China looming, and its interest in placing a wedge between Canada and the United States at every turn, as well as continued interference from Russia in liberal democracies across the globe, the importance of implementing the robust, substantive agenda crafted at the summit cannot be understated. Now, the hard work of executing it begins.

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