How the US, Canada and Mexico can achieve North America’s promise

Relations Between These Countries

Relations between these countries touch the daily lives of many millions of their citizens. Those deep connections offer benefits and often raise serious political concerns in each country.


The leaders of the United States, Canada and Mexico will meet on Nov. 18 for the first North American Leaders Summit (NALS) since 2016. Their agenda can power all three countries to rebound more effectively from the pandemic’s effects and unlock the important potential of better cooperation across the continent.

President Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador will be positioned to greatly increase collaboration: 1) to support rebuilding from pandemic’s blows to the continent’s deeply integrated value chains and industries; 2) to improve North America’s competitiveness vis-à-vis China and others; 3) to invest in North America’s workforces as technology transforms industries; 4) to address creatively climate change and green energy transformations; and 5) to better deal with daunting challenges such as migration, cybersecurity and cross-border crime.

Getting U.S.-Canada-Mexico cooperation right would give a big boost to all three countries. From an economic perspective, Canada, Mexico and the United State share one of the world’s strongest commercial and co-production networks with about $2 million in trade per minute crossing their shared borders. That trade supports over 12 million jobs for U.S. workers and farmers, and millions more in Canada and Mexico. The United States’s neighbors are its largest export markets and the two countries with which the U.S. co-produces more final products than any others in the world. The three must work well to implement the recent U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) on trade and to take supplemental steps to boost the continent’s economic potential as technology and industries evolve.

Relations between these countries touch the daily lives of many millions of their citizens. Those deep connections offer benefits and often raise serious political concerns in each country. If governments can manage relations and challenges well, however, cooperation can have big positive effects in countering deadly cross-border crime in drugs, better handling future pandemics, building more resilient and reliable supply chains for industries and farmers, confronting climate change, and transforming sectors to more efficient and greener industries, for example. Internationally, a more aligned North America will be better able to compete well in the global marketplace. Citizens of all three countries will benefit.

Some of the needed work will be done bilaterally, between the U.S. and Mexico in the High Level Economic and Security Dialogues, and between the U.S. and Canada in the Renewed U.S.-Canada Partnership — but the trilateral value added at the summit can be significant.

The meeting offers the opportunity for the three leaders to reset a forward-looking action agenda.  There is much common ground — but also differences to address. On energy, the environment and climate, for example, Lopez Obrador favors a strong state role in the energy sector and does not seem as committed to environmental action as are Trudeau and Biden.

The U.S. and Canada are concerned that Lopez-Obrador’s proposed energy sector reforms would violate USMCA commitments and harm their companies. Canada and Mexico are concerned that some U.S. proposals to “Buy American” and to implement USMCA rules could violate USMCA commitments. The leaders will need to resolve differences while forging a common agenda.

The potential inherent in a better partnership has led many to advocate for even more concerted and sustained cooperation. At the North American Leaders Summits in 2014 and 2016, leaders approved an impressive set of initiatives that should remain priority themes today. They included promoting North American competitiveness, deepening cooperation on education and innovation, and enhancing regulatory collaboration in cutting-edge and integrated sectors such as autos. They also built shared commitments on clean energy and climate change. They began work on establishing more compatible, modern trade and travel processes and transportation system planning.

The leaders also committed to work on cyber policy, on cooperation against illicit drugs and human trafficking, and importantly, on helping to address migration and development challenges in Central America. That impressive work agenda regrettably was largely put aside after 2016.

The years since have underscored the wisdom of cooperation and have added priorities. A fresh agenda should include applying lessons from supply chain disruptions during the pandemic, as well as from the (mis)handling of health collaboration and border management. The three governments must collaborate on investing in upskilling their workforces.

The leaders can dive into other issues that are vital for North America’s future, such as the development and deployment of electric vehicles (EVs). EVs will transform the auto sector, which is the quintessential North American industry because of its deep integration. The governments can support this evolution, whether it be on the supply chain of critical minerals, the development of battery and semiconductor production, or the provision of affordable “green” energy and needed recycling. And the summit would not be complete without serious conversations about how to manage climate change, even if differences persist.

With a robust action agenda blessed by the leaders, the three governments could then work with private and citizen stakeholders who are so essential to success in achieving concrete advances for North America. This work between leaders’ meetings will be vital for building and sustaining progress. The moment is ripe for the summit to create a robust North American work plan and help all three countries rebound from the pandemic and demonstrate the promise of cooperation.


Former ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne is a diplomat-in-residence at American University’s School of International Service and advisory board co-chair for the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. He was a U.S. diplomat for 40 years. Follow him on Twitter @EAnthonyWayne.