The State of North America After the Trilateral Summit?

Feb 24 2014, 5:33pm CST | by

The State of North America After the Trilateral Summit?
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

By: Duncan Wood, Director, Mexico Institute

In our most recent publication , the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center argued that, whereas a trilateral vision for the region is necessary for long-term progress toward strategic goals, a dual-bilateral approach may be complementary and even achieve more in the short term. Throughout the 20 year history of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the bilateral approach has more often than not trumped trilateralism, and cooperation in the region has moved ahead accordingly.

Last week’s trilateral North American leaders’ summit in Toluca, Mexico represented an important opportunity for the two presidents and prime minister to meet, and to discuss the future of the region. Four areas of cooperation were discussed that hold real promise. However, it may be that the bilateral talks that took place around the summit prove to be of more lasting significance.

Lets begin with the trilateral agreements. Although the media and analysts reacted with a collective yawn to the joint declaration, there were important new announcements in the areas of transportation, borders, energy, and research. In the first of these areas, the three premiers agreed to develop a North American Transportation Plan that will focus on the movement of freight across the region. Although details are sketchy, and there is still just a commitment to develop the Plan, it could prove to be an important step in the direction of improving the movement of valuable goods across the North American economic space and linking together and improving key transportation infrastructure.

With regards to borders, the three leaders made progress on a program that has been on the cards for a while now, namely the harmonization of different trusted traveler programs. The North American Trusted Traveler Program will bring about the mutual recognition of all existing trusted traveler programs in the region, facilitating the movement of those who frequently cross the region’s borders.

The third area of agreement centered on energy issues, with the three leaders calling for a North American Energy Ministers Meeting later in 2014 to “define areas for strong trilateral cooperation on energy”. What these areas might be is still unknown, but with the successful passage of energy reform legislation through Mexico’s Congress last December, mainly of the previously existing barriers to cooperation on oil and gas markets have now disappeared. A central question will be investment in and planning for energy infrastructure (refineries, pipelines and transmission lines), although the current impasse over the Keystone XL Pipeline will make Canada-U.S. talks complicated, to say the least.

Lastly, the leaders agreed to a Trilateral Research, Development and Innovation Council. This initiative is sufficiently vague and general to be difficult to evaluate at this time, but the idea of “encouraging opportunities for North American leadership and a trilateral network of entrepreneurs, as well as economic development efforts in highly integrated regions, like the Pacific Northwest Economic Region and the CaliBaja mega region” is a sound one. Existing initiatives at the bilateral level between Mexico and the United States have already shown promise and it is hoped that the experience can be repeated at the trilateral level.

So there is some reason to be optimistic after the Toluca Summit at the trilateral level. But the summit was important for another reason. The meetings that took place between senior cabinet officials from the US and Mexico, particularly during the lunch break, point to a growing comfort level and increasing socialization between the two governments. In particular, the meeting that took place between Mexico’s Finance Minister, Luis Videgaray and Economy Mjnister, Ildefonso Guajardo, on the one hand, and the U.S. government’s Commerce Secretary, Penny Pritzker and Trade Representative Michael Froman on the other, was reportedly a very successful one, with positive updates on the High Level Economic Dialogue, Mexico-U.S. Entrepreneurship and Innovation Council (MUSEIC), and constructive talks about the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). These conversations , following on from a recent visit by Pritzker to Mexico, serve to deepen the understanding and trust between both sides.

We now also have to recognize that the leaders’ meeting took place at a time when both President Obama and Peña Nieto (and their respective security chiefs) must have known about the imminent operation against El Chapo Guzman, successfully concluded on the following Saturday. This points to a much higher level of coordination between the two sides on security and organized crime than we had previously suspected, and to the ongoing importance of such collaboration.

The Toluca summit may well turn out to be a more important event than we first imagined. Trilateralism will survive in North America, but even if it doesn’t play a leading role, the bilateral processes that take place around its edges will keep the U.S. and Mexico intimately involved with each other.

Duncan Wood is the Director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center. 

Source: Forbes Business


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