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kergin, sarukhan and wayne

The authors are former Canadian ambassador to the United States, former Mexican ambassador to the United States and former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, respectively.

The foreign ministers of North America will meet in Quebec City on Friday morning with little fanfare. Yet, at a time of growing global disorder and uncertainty, North America is the strategic foundation from which the three countries secure their prosperity and safety.

About $2.7-million in trade passes between the United States and its two neighbours each minute. Mexico and Canada are the two largest U.S. export markets, buying a third of all that Americans send abroad. Millions of jobs depend on the trade and investment networks across our region, and the potential for added growth is enormous. A recent study by McKinsey & Co. predicts that if we keep working to improve the competitiveness of our North American market, our economies could add $8-trillion (U.S.) in gross domestic product by 2040.

And if we seek better security against terrorism, we need to co-ordinate even better among ourselves to stop terrorists before they reach our borders and airports. Despite the huge value of regional co-operation, policy-makers and politicians give surprisingly little attention to strengthening North America's foundations, let alone to recognizing the importance it already plays in our common well-being and security.

As the ministers gather, we believe this is the year to undertake a pivot to North America, giving our region the attention and priority it deserves. We are not the first to call for heightened attention to our continent. In 2014, for example, the Council on Foreign Relations published North America: Time for a New Focus, a report that does an outstanding job of articulating the need and recommends a number of changes to better manage North American issues. Some have taken up this call, but there is a regrettable paucity of attention paid to our region, and what attention exists is often piecemeal or negatively slanted.

We urge, therefore – in a U.S. election year – a strengthened focus on North America's importance to U.S. strategic, security, political and economic interests. For this reason, with the support of the authors, the Washington-based Wilson Center will launch an initiative this year to highlight the importance of North American co-operation and provide proposals for action.

The regional integrated supply chains and joint production platforms built over the past 20 years have made all three countries more efficient and interconnected. This is evident in the trade statistics that show U.S. exports to its neighbours rising consistently since 2009, at a rate higher than that with other trading partners.

But global competition is fierce, and instability in markets and economic forecasts suggests there are difficult challenges ahead. This should lead us to double down on efforts to make our cross-border economic ties more efficient and secure, even as we strengthen our respective economies. Our private sectors are already moving us toward a common innovation economy across North America, in which we not only work together to build products such as cars, airplanes and electronics, but also to design the next generations of these products.

Studies show that we are already more competitive than trade partners such as China, and our capacity to innovate and to move goods seamlessly throughout the region will ensure that we continue to be. Governments should be focusing on how they can support these developments at our borders with better infrastructure, and more efficient and harmonized processing and regulations for legitimate commerce and travel, while improving collaboration to stop illicit trade and travel. This is not easy or glamorous, but it is vital.

More broadly, our three countries are partners in bringing the Trans-Pacific Partnership to fruition, opening new markets for our goods and services. As countries with European Union free-trade agreements, Mexico and Canada should also rightly be partners in a similar trade and investment agreement with the European Union, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, again opening new opportunities to grow trade across the Atlantic and create jobs at home.

All three countries are major energy producers and have much potential for the future in both carbon-based and renewable sources, so North America is well positioned to provide for our future supplies, to ensure the sustainability of policies across the continent and to build and strengthen the resilience of our energy infrastructure. We would expect the ministers will support building common approaches to implementing Paris Climate Conference commitments and responding to natural disasters.

Efforts to bolster security will be a key part of the agenda in Quebec City. But this has to be done in the context that our collaboration sets the basis for defence of our region.

Our security collaboration on these matters is already close, as is evident in improvements in recent years, particularly in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. But there are clear benefits to developing a more thorough, trilateral and holistic posture. A more unified North American approach could bring massive benefits in confronting terrorism, organized crime, cybersecurity challenges, critical infrastructure protection and tackling the difficulties and opportunities that migrant and refugee flows entail for our three peoples. Canada, the United States and Mexico can start working on becoming leaders of a North American approach and footprint to address the root causes of these problems, far from our borders.

The three ministers will likely also discuss how to support democracy, rule of law and human rights throughout the region and more broadly. This is an urgent and welcome development.

The key message, though, is that the North American agenda should be an ongoing priority for all three countries. We are much more important to each other than we realize: Pivoting to North America can be the way to ensure that, in a turbulent 21st century, our three countries are partners in success rather than accomplices in failure.

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