04/02/2012 12:50 EDT | Updated 06/02/2012 05:12 EDT

The Three Amigos: The Sequel


U.S. President Barack Obama hosts Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon in Washington for a North American Leaders' summit today. The significance of the summit, which former Prime Minister Jean Chretien used to call "the three amigos," is largely in the fact that it is taking place, and the manner in which it came together.

This is the sixth North American Leaders' summit. The previous five occurred annually: Waco (2005), Cancun (2006), Montebello (2007), New Orleans (2008), and Guadalajara (2009). In 2010 it was Canada's turn to host, but for Canadian officials it was something of an afterthought: they proposed tacking it on after the G-8 and G-20 summits. The Obama administration said no, the President couldn't be away in Canada for a full week. Canada looked at other dates, but there were none that worked in 2010. The Canadians might have hosted in 2011 instead, but didn't propose anything. Finally, Obama proposed a North American Leaders' meeting at the APEC summit the U.S. was hosting in Honolulu (where Obama overcame opposition from New Zealand to extend invitations to Canada, Mexico, and Japan to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks).

The Mexican interior minister Blake Mora was killed in a helicopter crash right before the summit, and so Mexican President Felipe Calderon stayed home. Harper and Obama had a brief bilateral chat instead. And Obama decided to host the three leaders in Washington in 2012.

Since the Guadalajara summit -- where Obama tried (and failed) to get Harper and Calderon to agree to merge the U.S.-Canada and U.S.-Mexico clean energy dialogues -- the United States has for now accepted dual-bilateralism with regard to North America. We've since added border cooperation and regulatory cooperation talks with both neighbours, which are coordinated within the U.S. government (and White House) by the same teams so that they are not truly parallel and may yet converge. The U.S. has also placed "customs facilitation and supply chain security" and regulatory harmonization on the agenda in its Trans-Atlantic and Trans-Pacific talks so that what is negotiated continentally can become a global model.

In this brief history you can see the context of the Washington North American Leaders' meeting. The United States (the Obama administration no less than its predecessor) remains doggedly committed to trilateralism, and to a 21st-century agenda of security and economic cooperation that it hopes to extend across the Atlantic and Pacific in time.

Canada under Harper is negative or diffident toward trilateralism, telling itself that bilateral talks are a recognition of the U.S.-Canada special relationship.

Mexico is more willing to proceed trilaterally, but distracted by domestic challenges stemming from its war against drug cartels and this summer's elections.

These predispositions shape the summit, which should otherwise be a positive meeting. The three North American countries are experiencing some economic growth, which is more than most of the world's regions can claim -- market watchers continue to have worries about Europe and Asia.

In this sense, the meeting itself is symbolic and significant. Trilateral management of North American integration is proceeding on an "agree to disagree" basis, with U.S. ambitions for the agenda that are multilateral. Harper appears to see the world differently, pursuing bilateral trade agreements wherever he can, and Canada's view of the United States as its BFF that does not have room for Mexico in it.

Calderon, Obama's other BFF, will attend his final North American Leaders' meeting in Washington, taking notes to give his successor an idea of what to expect at the next summit, which Mexico will likely host next year.