The Three Amigos

Instead of spouting platitudes, Obama should have pressed Canada and Mexico for closer cooperation on drugs, energy and trade at the Guadalajara summit.

For those of us awaiting a clear signal from the Guadalajara summit about the future of North American integration, the results were somewhat disappointing. President Barack Obama told Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon, "I've got a lot on my plate." The three leaders essentially agreed to kick the can down the road on a number of contentious issues-including immigration, fighting organized crime, dealing with climate change and pursuing energy security.

It is understandable why President Obama pursued this approach. With two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to deal with, and with important parts of his domestic agenda now making their way through Congress, opening new cans of worms-especially immigration reform-is not politically feasible.

But what is of concern is that the president has never really clearly articulated his vision for North America. During the campaign he initially supported the notion of revising the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in a direction that would have put new restrictions into place. The stimulus bill contained "buy American" provisions that were not well received in Canada. And despite the rhetoric of change, Obama's foreign-policy team is following the traditional horizontal trajectory of focusing on transatlantic relations rather than spending more time and effort on cultivating the "vertical" north-south axis.  When the White House announced that President Obama would focus on rebuilding America's ties with its partners and allies, the press statement noted that he "visited Europe to begin this process." Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden is more of a familiar figure in Central and Eastern Europe rather than in the Western Hemisphere.

Does this suggest that, when the current storms have passed, the administration is going to move North America-and by extension, the larger Western Hemisphere-to a higher place on the agenda?

Certainly, there are major drawbacks to pursuing closer integration in North America-not the least of which is the potential for further spillover of violence and crime from a Mexico that is being destabilized by drug cartels. Nor is there the political will in the United States to engage in the transfer of economic resources to assist Mexico's economy in the way that Germany and the Benelux countries were willing to fund development projects in Ireland and the southern tier of the then-European Community.

But there is still a difference between wanting to turn NAFTA into the "North American Union" and pursuing a more limited, targeted set of policies. Closer law enforcement and military coordination, for instance, in combating quasi-state narco-terrorist actors who can field significant firepower. Extending a zone of drug interdiction from the southern U.S. border further along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Creating new and efficient transport networks along the north-south continental access as well as from sea to sea. Developing a long-term strategy to create a "North American energy community" that insulates our region from geopolitical shocks in other parts of the world (the Persian Gulf and West Africa). Perhaps even considering a Schengen-style agreement that coordinates and tracks the arrival of overseas visitors.

All of this requires both a multi-administrational approach-because none of this can be accomplished within the span of a single presidency-and the awareness among both Congress and the general public that the security and prosperity of the United States depends not only on the two oceans that shield us from east and west but also on having two strong and effective partners on our northern and southern borders. It also means that the American predilection for wanting to be involved in the further expansion of the European Union to encompass more states to its east needs to be put on a back shelf, with more attention to be paid to our own back and front yards.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.