North American Pivot? President Obama Meets Canadian and Mexican Leaders in Ottawa at a Crucial Moment

President Barack Obama travels to Ottawa on June 29 for his final North American Leaders Summit (NALS) and the first NALS with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada. The meeting comes at a critical moment in the North American partnership among the United States, Canada, and Mexico. In addition to the current high temperature of the political debate in the U.S. election campaign about relations with Mexico and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the challenging issues in the partnership have managed to steal the spotlight fairly consistently over the past few years, since the last NALS meeting in 2014.

Since President George W. Bush inaugurated the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) with his Canadian and Mexican counterparts in 2005, these North American leaders’ meetings and policy discussions have endured political changes of governing party in all three countries. President Obama’s approach to North America, however different in name, has had many similarities to the Bush policy. The Obama administration rightly recognized the importance of keeping in place the trilateral leaders’ summit process, which eventually gravitated toward the same issues that were contained in the SPP. The NALS now even involves groups of other stakeholders, which was a trend begun by the SPP in 2006 in Cancun, where corporate CEOs met with the leaders.

What’s In a Meeting?

The North American Leaders Summit should be viewed and understood as policy process with several main and complementary goals. It is not just a meeting. The first goal is to provide vision, and affirm the highest-level support from the three governments, for getting North America policy right. The leaders set the tone, the direction, and the agenda for the work in the coming year. The second, and perhaps most important, impact of the summit process is that it is an action-forcing event. The trilateral meetings serve as an important end point for policy discussions and a motivator that creates a bias toward action inside the agencies in all three governments. The search for “deliverables” with a due date is a powerful force. Increasingly, the summit process also seeks to engage a broader group of stakeholders in the process. This is a critical element going forward, and one that the NALS should be looking to build on with stakeholders beyond the CEOs of large corporations.

The Agenda

Prime Minister Trudeau made hosting this summit an early priority for his government, inviting Obama during his Washington visit in March. Trudeau has pledged to improve Canada’s frayed relationship with Mexico, and he hopes a speech by Obama to the Canadian Parliament will create enough goodwill for the Canada-U.S. relationship to weather the 2016 election season in Washington and the handover of government in the United States in 2017. President Peña Nieto of Mexico will be hosted in a state visit by the governor general (Canada’s head of state; the prime minister is the head of government) while Obama is speaking to Parliament.

As host of this NALS meeting, Trudeau has placed environmental cooperation at the center of the agenda for the first time. The Canadian leader has proposed a coordinated effort by the three countries to address climate change that would prevent any corner of the continent from lowering standards. The three leaders will discuss other areas of cooperation in Ottawa that could advance their respective environmental policy goals, including technology sharing and expanding regional energy trade; Canada is the largest foreign supplier of oil, natural gas, and electricity to the United States.

Economic development, and in particular infrastructure, will also likely be discussed in Ottawa. All three leaders have previously identified domestic infrastructure needs and priorities, and in his April budget, Trudeau joined Obama and Peña Nieto in creating a large domestic infrastructure fund to provide economic stimulus. All three federal governments are looking at public-private partnerships as a way to finance large-scale infrastructure projects, and they could discuss these efforts in Ottawa as well, particularly as the recent death of hockey legend Gordie Howe will trigger attention to problems with land acquisition for the proposed Gordie Howe International Bridge between Detroit and Windsor.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is likely to be another topic of discussion. President Obama brought Canada and Mexico into the talks, and the resulting agreement is pending ratification. The Obama administration’s hope may be that the U.S. Congress will approve the agreement in the “lame duck” session that follows the November election. Neither the Canadian Parliament nor the Mexican Congress is likely to approve the TPP before the United States does, but the rhetoric in the U.S. election campaign has been noted with alarm in both countries. Canadians and Mexicans may not like all aspects of the TPP, but a better deal seems increasingly less likely.

The NALS agenda is also likely to include discussion of the many legacy issues, including the dual-bilateral border security plans. The U.S.-Canada Beyond the Border Working Group has made significant progress on issues including a bilateral agreement to expand U.S. Customs pre-clearance in Canada that is now pending new legislation before Parliament and Congress. The U.S.-Mexico 21st Century Border Management Commission has fostered the technological upgrade of border inspection on both sides of the border and has brought risk-management tools into routine use to facilitate the flow of legitimate trade and travel to a far greater extent than ever before.

It is also important to keep the balance of the issues in the trilateral relationship, and the leaders seem set to do so with a tangible announcement on a critical security issue. The three leaders are expected to announce new plans for cooperation on countering the growing trend in heroin trafficking and the cultivation of opium poppy, as well as possible new cooperative measures on drug treatment and prevention. This type of announcement will be critically important to reinforce the message that the summitry addresses issues that matter to citizens.

Great Expectations

In addition to the full agenda of ongoing dual bilateral and trilateral issues, the summits are an important venue for allowing the leaders to head off potential disputes and resolve ongoing ones.

The United States and Canada, for example, have an opportunity now to avoid another dispute over Canadian softwood lumber. The agreement that resolved the previous dispute, reached by President Bush and Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2006, has expired, and U.S. lumber producers can file for countervailing duties against Canadian imports in October. Talks between Ottawa and Washington to avert this battle have not yet produced an agreement, and there is some hope that one could be forthcoming at the NALS.

Expectations are also running high that Canada and Mexico resolve their dispute over Canadian visa requirements. The previous Canadian government of Prime Minister Harper in 2010 added a requirement that Mexicans travelling to Canada secure a visa, following a surge in Mexican travelers to Canada seeking to stay. The visa requirement has been a sore point in bilateral relations ever since. Trudeau pledged to address the issue on the campaign trail, and early indications are that the issue will be resolved at this NALS.

Another key outcome of this meeting should be an agreement on results and communication. The three leadership staffs need to direct focus toward issues on which the governments can show clear impact and then effectively communicate that impact. While the EU and the North American frameworks are not at all on the same scale—the North American agenda has always prioritized sovereignty and did not seriously contemplate anything like the institutions present in the European Union—the lessons from the Brexit campaign will be a cautionary tale for the North American leaders. If nothing else, the Brexit reinforces the need to ensure the North American partnership is relevant to people, includes them in the debate, and clearly demonstrates benefits to the citizens of the three countries.

Most of the North American relationship is day-to-day and “in the weeds” on highly technical trade or border or security issues. As such, very often those issues that do cause bilateral or trilateral tension tend to overwhelm the broader reality simply because tension is interesting. Progress on regulatory cooperation, however important (and it is), is not the stuff of must-see TV. The challenge for the leaders and their teams will be to create a compelling case for the everyday, incremental progress that makes North America better for actual people—more efficient, more competitive, easier for businesses to buy and sell things, easier for legal travelers and cargo to move, and more safe—while not letting the areas of discord dominate the news cycle.

In the current heated political climate and with the approaching U.S. leadership transition, it will be important for the three leaders in Ottawa to pledge not only continuity of the process, but also publicly announce the time and date of the next meeting in 2017, which the United States is due to host. This will keep the agenda moving and provide encouragement to the next U.S. administration to continue to engage.

A North American Pivot?

The U.S. relationship with Canada and Mexico is a pivot. It is not something we turn toward once in a while, but a fundamental relationship we are centered around and depend on. The agenda needs to be given the consistent, high-level focus across the three governments that it deserves. In the current global economic and political climate, a serious North America focus, reinforcing the good that comes even from imperfect partnerships, should be the order of the day.

Kimberly Breier is deputy director of the Americas Program and director of the U.S.-Mexico Futures Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Christopher Sands is a senior associate of the CSIS Americas Program.

Commentary 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).

© 2016 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Christopher Sands

Christopher Sands

Senior Associate (Non-resident), Americas Program

Kimberly Breier