The Other Americas Summit that Matters
March 30, 2012
While most eyes are fixed on the Summit of the Americas set for April 14–15 in Cartagena, Colombia, a smaller gathering, but just as important, is meeting in Washington, D.C., on April 2. It is the North American Summit. Originally scheduled for November 2011, it was postponed after a helicopter crash took the life of Mexico’s interior minister and key presidential confidante Francisco Blake Mora.
The North American Summit is an outgrowth of the Security and Prosperity Partnership meetings begun under President George W. Bush in 2005. Originally limited to trade, border, regulatory matters, and counternarcotics, the summit now includes defense cooperation, especially in the area of military support to civilian authority. This latter addition occurred during the Obama administration and is sensitive in all three countries.
In the United States, the 1878 Posse Comitatus law separates military and law enforcement functions, making it difficult for soldiers to provide law enforcement assistance to foreign militaries that may have some of those responsibilities. U.S. police, however, are municipally organized and do not have a natural path to foreign engagement. In Mexico, sovereignty is important, limiting how much visibility U.S. assistance can have. Moreover, Mexican defense is led separately by an army secretary and a navy secretary (like the United States before 1947), which makes diplomatic engagement difficult for single Canadian and U.S. defense heads. In Canada, greater trilateral defense cooperation encroaches on feelings of a special relationship with the United States, enshrined in the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
Nonetheless, U.S. defense secretary Leon Panetta, Canadian defense minister Peter MacKay, and Mexican defense secretary General Guillermo Galván Galván and navy secretary Admiral Mariano Saynez met in a pre-summit meeting held last week in Ottawa to discuss how to improve cooperation on counternarcotics and enable more coordinated responses to natural disasters. A decade ago, such a meeting that included Mexico would have been unthinkable.
While the April 2 heads of state meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Presidents Barack Obama and Felipe Calderón will pick up on themes proposed for the November summit—such as economic competitiveness, jobs, regulatory cooperation, climate change, and energy—discussion may focus on irritants in the relationship. Despite Mexico’s improving job market and drop in emigration, U.S. migratory policies may come up, as well as complaints over the ease of weapons purchases in some states. Prime Minister Harper may inquire about the fate of the Keystone oil pipeline, for now a duct to nowhere.
Perhaps disturbing to some neighbors, all three may discuss North American leadership roles in the hemisphere and globally. All three nations are economic powerhouses. For now, all three share democratic political principles. And now, all three have found a way to talk with each other as colleagues. The tone and substance of discussions in the North American Summit are now meaningful in ways that one could only hope for in the Americas Summit to be held in Cartagena.
To be fair, the Organization of Americas States, which sponsors the Americas Summit, must coordinate the participation of not 3, but 34 countries, which range from prosperous democracies to borderline dictatorships. The dialogue there is usually less productive, sometimes belligerent, and welcomes grandstanding. Nonetheless, a common denominator of agreement on some of the Americas Summit themes—reducing poverty, responding to natural disasters, access to technology, citizen security, regional integration, and other means of supportive cooperation—may emerge. If it does, it will be useful. But in practical terms, no one should expect the same impact on policies resulting from the more modest North American Summit.
Stephen Johnson is a senior fellow and director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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).
© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.