The 2016 North American Leaders Summit

On Wednesday, June 29, President Barack Obama travels to Ottawa for a summit with President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada. This is the ninth summit of North American Leaders since 2005, when President George W. Bush convened the first at his ranch near Waco, Texas. Since then, summits have occurred annually (with a few exceptions). Obama will also give an address in the Canadian Parliament that will focus on the U.S.-Canadian relationship. This meeting will be historic for three reasons: it marks Obama’s final summit and likely his last official visit to Canada; it will be Peña Nieto’s first official visit to Canada since his election in 2012; and it will be the first time that Trudeau has hosted an international summit since his election in October 2015.

Beyond these milestones, the Ottawa summit will be the first major international meeting following the British referendum on EU membership, the outcome of which has shaken international markets. Obama’s trade policy legacy depends on the ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) by the U.S. Congress, as well as by Canada and Mexico. Both of Obama’s potential successors have disavowed the TPP, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) too. In this context, what Obama says—or doesn’t say—about the global economy and the future of North America will matter.

Q1: What is the purpose of North American Leaders Summits?

A1: In NAFTA, the governments of Canada, the United States, and Mexico agreed to eliminate barriers to trade and investment. Some of this was accomplished by eliminating tariffs, but there are nontariff barriers as well, such as differing regulatory standards or paperwork requirements, that prevent a product from the United States from being sold in Canada or Mexico. The NAFTA text includes a commitment to set up working groups made up of senior officials from all three countries to address these barriers.

After 10 years of NAFTA, President George W. Bush felt that this approach was not making much progress; officials were cautious about cooperating in the absence of political support and accountability to voters. In addition, border security changes after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington had become unintentional barriers to legitimate trade and added to the costs of doing business in North America. So, in 2005, Bush convened a summit to ask the Canadian and Mexican leaders to work with him in what he called a Security and Prosperity Partnership for North America, also known as the SPP. The three leaders agreed to meet every year to review progress and discuss issues of mutual concern.

Q2: How did President Obama change the summits?

A2: President Obama reorganized the work of the SPP into a dual-bilateral structure instead of the trilateral model Bush had used. So, he set up separate U.S.-Canadian and U.S.-Mexican talks on border security and on regulation and added two bilateral working groups on clean energy. However, Obama enjoyed the meetings with Canadian and Mexican leaders and has continued these, even hosting two in a row (2011 and 2012).

Interestingly, this is Obama’s last summit, and it takes place in an atmosphere of economic crisis similar to his first. In 2009, Obama went to his first summit as his administration grappled with the global financial crisis. Today, the international economy is under stress from faltering growth in China, the uncertain impact of Brexit—for Britain and for the European Union, which only recently navigated a crisis in Greece—and a glut of oil and other commodities on the market, which has depressed prices and hobbled developing economies. In 2009 and now, working together with U.S. neighbors offers Obama the chance to coordinate responses with Canada and Mexico.

Q3: What have the North American Leaders Summits accomplished?

A3: The leaders do two things at these summits that are quite important. First, as elected leaders, they review progress by their officials and push for more progress. This matters because it provides a degree of public accountability to the process of working together that the European Union, by contrast, does not have to the same degree. It also allows people in government to feel that they have support when they want to try new approaches to solving shared challenges together.

Second, the leaders solve problems themselves. This is a forum where difficult issues can be reviewed and decisions on a joint strategy taken.

Some examples of what these summits have accomplished include: setting up a system for coordinating responses to pandemics like Avian flu, Ebola, and now Zika; recognizing the qualifications of emergency personnel who offer help in response to a hurricane, earthquake, or other disaster; and developing a phytosanitary protocol that helps to target bad food products, such as contaminated meat or vegetables, and destroy only what is tainted and not arbitrarily destroy all of a company’s inventory.

At past summits, the leaders have also discussed global issues, such as participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, fighting illegal narcotics trafficking, and working together on climate change.

Q4: These leaders meet at so many summits: G7, G20, the United Nations, the Summit of the Americas among others. What makes the North American Leaders Summit different?

A4: There are two key factors that make North American Leaders Summits appealing to leaders, even former NAFTA critics like Barack Obama.

The first is the size: just three leaders and not a lot of ceremony and fuss. At North American Summits each leader has more time for building mutual trust and understanding and for speaking frankly about issues.

The second factor is that the North American model for regional integration respects national sovereignty, rather than delegating it to independent institutions. There is no North American Congress, commission, or bureaucracy to get into mischief by acting independently. For the leaders to achieve the single market for goods, investment, and services that NAFTA envisioned, they must voluntarily cooperate as sovereign equals. This makes the North American model slower, but it also places the responsibility for action on the leaders themselves.

Q5: This is Trudeau’s first summit, and he announced he would host it during his first official visit to Washington in March. As the host, how is Trudeau putting his stamp on this meeting?

A5: Trudeau has worked to develop a close, personal relationship with President Obama since they met in March. His government is committed to making the most of the time remaining with Obama in office and not give up on the president as a “lame duck,” as many have.

With Peña Nieto, Trudeau has worked to heal the rift between Canada and Mexico that started when a surge of Mexican visitors to Canada began applying to stay in Canada in 2010, prompting the Canadian government to impose a visa requirement on Mexicans who want to visit Canada. Canada’s previous prime minister, Stephen Harper, imposed the requirement in spite of Mexican offers to work cooperatively with Canada to resolve the problem. One result of this has been that Peña Nieto, elected in 2012, is visiting Canada now for the first time.

Finally, Trudeau has set an agenda for the summit that includes economic and security issues, but adds the environment and economic development. The leaders hope to make an announcement to boost their national responses to climate change by coordinating to ensure high environmental standards throughout North America. And they will discuss economic development, particularly infrastructure, to make the North American economy more inclusive and accessible for businesses in all three countries.

Christopher Sands is a senior associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a senior research professor and director of the Center for Canadian Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Photo courtesy of CHRIS ROUSSAKIS/AFP/Getty Images

Christopher Sands

Christopher Sands

Senior Associate (Non-resident), Americas Program