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How Biden, Trudeau and AMLO can achieve North America’s promise

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North America must be a high priority for the Biden administration. President Biden understands the issues, having devoted considerable time to the region as vice president. Sadly, however, given the Trump administration’s approach, mutual trust has suffered badly with both of America’s neighbors. 

President Biden, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, should take full advantage of Biden’s arrival to the White House to rebuild confidence and establish cooperative work agendas on key economic and security issues.

Looming challenges posed by Central American migrants heading north and Mexico’s decision to undermine cooperation against drug trafficking only make the case stronger for focused attention. Biden’s team should reorganize structures to take full advantage of the opportunities from North American cooperation, as well as to resolve problems.

Biden intends to “build back better” at home. If it integrates well into his plan, the roles that America’s neighbors and the continent’s integrated production chains can play will reinforce mutual prosperity. A collaborative approach will help bolster competitiveness against China and others in the global marketplace.

Relations with Canada and Mexico touch the daily lives of more Americans than do relationships with any other countries in the world. They remain the United States’s largest economic partners, and those with the most citizen-to-citizen interaction. 

The three North American countries have one of the strongest trading and production networks in the world. The United States, Canada and Mexico share a population of over 493 million people, a GDP of almost $24.5 trillion, and they represent the first, 10th, and 15th largest economies of the world, respectively.

U.S. relations with Mexico and Canada are quintessentially “intermestic” — they embody challenges and opportunities that are simultaneously domestic and international. Whether one considers trade, investment, jobs, competitiveness, homeland security, the environment, migration, illegal drugs, pandemics, terrorism or many other issues, Mexico and Canada are vital for the United States. 

How the three governments engage on these issues has significant domestic impact — for good and bad — in all three countries. Mexico was the United States’s second-largest trading partner in 2020, for example, and also the largest source of illegal drugs.

None of the three countries can ignore the effect of geographic location, but all can benefit by giving more attention to continental relationships. The three governments should define trilateral and bilateral action agendas and processes that deal more effectively with important problems and openings. The arrival of a new U.S. team opens the door to revitalizing a trilateral action agenda and reimagining bilateral agendas.

Biden, Trudeau and AMLO should agree to convene a North America leaders’ summit in the year ahead. Biden may even want a less formal get-together sooner. Early on, they can task teams to establish mechanisms to set the agenda and begin to manage cooperation with a forward-looking spirit.  

The leaders will want to confirm their commitment to making the most out of the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which provides the legal framework for growing continental commerce, shared production supports and up to 13 million U.S. jobs. Implemented well, USMCA will allow the settlement of expected disputes and help North America’s value chains become more competitive globally.   

The COVID-19 pandemic made evident the interdependence of cross-continent production chains and the importance of making supply chains more resilient and less dependent on distant suppliers. It also highlighted the value of working with neighbors to prepare for and manage health emergencies. 

Rebuilding cooperation with Canada and Mexico must include improving bilateral mechanisms to deal with homeland security and economic issues outside of USMCA. In the case of Mexico, this means reinventing bilateral coordination bodies that Donald Trump set aside, such as the High-Level Economic Dialogue and the multi-agency Security Coordination Group, as well as a cooperative approach to migration and Central America. The need is highlighted by the current serious U.S.-Mexico differences over fighting drug trafficking and the danger of a new surge in Central American migrants. Recognizing the need for immediate attention, for immediate attention, Biden is naming a special coordinator for the southern border and migration.

The Biden administration should build North America into its organizational structure at the National Security Council, State Department, Homeland Security and other key agencies. This should include designating senior officials and interagency working groups to manage and coordinate North American relations, as part of a long-term strategy that integrates economics, homeland security and domestic policies. 

A revitalized effort will need a multi-layered approach that effectively incorporates the many stakeholders in North America’s success from the private sector, state and local governments, legislatures and other parts of the three societies. 

Revitalizing collaboration across North America will not be easy. The issues are complex and involve sensitive domestic politics. For example, Mexico has stirred concern in the U.S. over energy and may differ with the Biden administration on the environment. Its current approach to anti-crime cooperation is problematic, underscoring the need to engage.

In the short term, the agenda will include COVID-19 management and recovery; strengthening supply chains; implementing the USMCA; reviewing border security; bolstering law enforcement coordination; and rethinking migration management and aid to Central America.   

The medium- and longer-term agendas include creating a shared vision and structures that enhance mutual prosperity and security. This encompasses dealing with a host of cross-cutting issues such as climate change, green energy futures, cybersecurity, workforce development, and the deployment of new technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence and electric vehicles.  Internationally, the three countries should forge common economic approaches to China and Asia. 

The payoff of this hard work among the United States, Mexico and Canada could be immense.

Earl Anthony Wayne is a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, co-chair of the advisory board of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, and a Distinguished Diplomat in Residence at American University’s School of International Service. Follow him on Twitter @EAnthonyWayne.

Tags Andrés Manuel López Obrador Donald Trump Economy of North America Justin Trudeau United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement US-Mexico relations

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