North American Summit as Traveling Stage Show


If you get your news from the U.S. media, the trilateral meeting between the North American heads of state was mostly a feel-good session to smooth over ruffled feathers in relationships over the past years. Given the lack of content in the official declarations, you have to wonder why they even bothered at all.

But the real agenda was a little more complex. To understand what happened at the recent North American summit, you have to read between the lines of the chummy public pronouncements.

Several of the real motives were evident from the beginning. First, the Bush administration owed a diplomatic debt to Mexico’s President Fox. Despite its refusal to vote in favor of the invasion of Iraq , Fox’s government has supported virtually every other major U.S. initiative in both bilateral and global forums. It has acted as a henchman for U.S. interests (recall when Fox, as host to the Monterrey Summit, explicitly asked Fidel Castro to leave before Bush arrived) even at high internal political costs for a nation accustomed to a more independent role with respect to its northern neighbor.

In the face of efforts to integrate Latin America , Fox’s Mexico has consistently edged its loyalties northward toward the Colossus of the North, which accounts for over 90% of its international trade. The nation has even accepted the ludicrous "national security" framework imposed by the United States on the bilateral relationship–despite the absence of terrorist threats from Mexico –and let the crucial immigration issue fall by the wayside. With the State Department more aggressively defining Latin American countries as "with us" and "against us" it was important to offer a little political support to the Fox government for standing so firmly in the "with us" column.

The issue with Canada was the opposite. Canada has been stridently insisting on resolutions to the export restrictions on its beef and lumber, and recently crossed the Bush administration by refusing to participate in the continental missile-defense proposal. In his declarations, Prime Minister Paul Martin strongly reiterated these positions. The leaders, however, agreed to view differences in the context of an overarching commitment to shared goals.

Both Fox and Martin were finally conceded twenty-minute bilateral meetings in private with Bush. President Fox announced that as a result of his meeting, Bush committed to presenting an immigration proposal to Congress. No dates were defined, and apparently the specific content of the proposal was not addressed. Nor did the U.S. president commit to working closely with Congress, or even members of his own party, to obtain approval.

Indeed, in his final remarks President Bush was notably non-committal about the fate of such a proposal: "you’ve got my pledge I’ll continue to work on it. You don’t have my pledge that Congress will act, because I’m not a member of the legislative branch." It was a surprising admission of limitations from a president whose party controls both houses of Congress and who boasted after his electoral triumph that he’d "gained political capital and was going to spend it."

The immigration proposal Bush tried to float last year was shot down in the crossfire between those who opposed any loosening of the border, and those who claimed it did not go far enough by failing to provide amnesty and citizenship measures. There is no indication that this year will be any different; in fact the domestic debate on immigration has become more polarized than ever.

The pre-announced "Alliance for Security and Prosperity" was barely mentioned in the official declarations. Unspecified working groups are slated to elaborate on unspecified proposals, and present strategies in three months. Emphasizing that "(security and prosperity) go hand in hand" Bush stated that the prosperity agenda in the hemisphere is based on free trade while the security agenda continues to pivot on counterterrorism measures.

Although unsaid, the prosperity part also has to do with the need for the United States to reinforce the North American Free Trade Agreement in the face of the dismal prospects of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas .

Given the meteoric rise of China and increased pressures in the WTO, the U.S. trade agenda has come home again with a renewed emphasis on fortifying the regional trade bloc. In this context, a NAFTA-Plus–the shorthand for greater integration within the region–far from being an expansion toward the inclusion of social and environmental issues including labor flows, is seen as a reaffirmation of mutual roles as front-line markets and suppliers. Bush also put in a plug for CAFTA, soon to be voted on in Congress, but according to scuttlebutt still several votes shy of passage.

Finally, security issues took the headlines and most of the ink at this meeting, to nobody’s surprise. However, nothing concrete was announced. It is likely that the Bush administration has asked Mexico for more stringent border protection measures on the shared border and to further close off its southern border to flows of Central American migrants. But to make a formal announcement to that affect would be a public relations bombshell for Fox at a time when his political capital is exceedingly low. For its part, Canada agreed to increase Smart Border measures while refusing major militarization measures such as the proposed U.S. missile-defense system.

So after the pecan pie and the handshakes, nothing much had changed. The "trilateral relationship" continues to be a double bilateral relationship, mediated not just geographically but diplomatically by the central power–the United States . The agendas of the junior partners– Canada on dispute resolution mechanisms, Mexico on immigration–received only cursory and rhetorical attention while U.S.-defined security took precedence over daily realities.

In short, the United States continued to call the shots in a summit that looked more like a traveling stage show than a true meeting of nations.

LAURA CARLSEN directs the Americas Program of the International Relations Center (IRC), online at www.irc-online.org.


November 30, 2015
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