Washington, 23 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The three leaders -- U.S. President George W. Bush, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, and Mexican President Vicente Fox -- emerged from an hour-long meeting today to speak of their renewed effort to improve security and trade in North America.
Bush said it is vital for Canada, Mexico, and the United States to keep trade flowing while ensuring that their borders are safe.
"We got a large border with Canada. We got a large border with Mexico," Bush said. "There are [about 1] million people a day crossing the border from Mexico to the United States, which presents a common issue and that is: How do we make sure those crossing the border are not terrorists or drug runners or gun runners or smugglers?"
The agreement also is intended to make the countries more competitive with their strongest rivals, including India, China, and the European Union. It would serve as an enhancement of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into effect in 1993.
"We represent three sovereign nations that have formed one of the most successful partnerships in the world. That being said, we also recognize that we cannot be complacent." -- Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin
"We represent three sovereign nations that have formed one of the most successful partnerships in the world," Martin said. "That being said, we also recognize that we cannot be complacent. The world is not standing still. New economic powerhouses such as China and India are rising, and we face new opportunities, but we also face new challenges."
The three leaders interacted congenially, but their disputes remain. First, both Canada and Mexico were opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq two years ago, a difference that continues to strain relations.
Beyond Iraq, Fox's primary complaint is that in early 2001, Bush announced plans to open the U.S. border, then abruptly canceled them after the attacks of September 11 that year.
Stephen Johnson says he believes Fox's complaint is weak. Johnson, a former U.S. State Department member specializing in inter-American affairs, tells RFE/RL that Mexico could have kept millions of its citizens from fleeing north for better jobs by improving the business climate in Mexico and attracting more foreign investment.
Most important, Johnson says, is for the Mexican government to begin challenging the primacy of state and family business monopolies. Competition, he says, would generate more jobs.
As for Canada, Martin recently shifted his position on the U.S. missile-defense initiative, deciding finally n-o-t to take part in it. There also is a dispute over U.S. tariffs on imports of Canadian lumber. And Washington recently decided to extend a ban on imports of Canadian beef, citing so-called "mad cow" disease in some of its cattle.
Johnson says he expects business interests in all three countries eventually will embrace a pan-American approach to trade. He uses cattle as an example.
"What's good for Canadian beef sales is also good for American beef sales and Central American beef sales and Mexican and South American," he says. "Ultimately, I think, the people that look at the much bigger conglomerated market of the Americas being something that can go up against Asian markets and the European Union probably will hold sway. But right now, there are still a lot of these domestic constituencies that are battling each other in all three of the countries."
But for now, Johnson says, the disputes will persist. He says he believes today's summit will be a step toward reconciling them.