Taking a chapter from Jimmy Carter's early days as president, Ronald Reagan's first foreign policy venture will be to extend more-than-cordial greetings to his North American neighbors.
But the President-elect's Jan. 5 meeting with Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo and a projected but still-unscheduled trip to Canada signal far more than the symbolic gestures of friendship that Mr. Carter displayed when the leaders of those two nations visited him early in 1977.
Mr. Reagan seeks a continental "common market" among the three nations, a goal he enunciated in his announcement of presidential candidacy in November 1979. In that openine speech, the former California governor called for a "North American accord" to create an atmosphere "in which the peoples and commerce of its three strong countries flow more freely across their present borders than they do today."
With some sense of the difficulties involved, however, Reagan added that this quest "may take the next 100 years." In fact, last May when President Portillo and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau met to complete an oil deal, both leaders threw cold water on the idea of a North American accord, implying it would only accentuate US economic dominance over its two closest neighbors.
Still, the pressures for achieving some form of trilateral agreement are building:
* High trade barriers still exist between Canada, Mexico, and the US -- despite a quadrupling of exports and imports in recent years.
* Escalating trade competition between continents is pushing the North America trio toward coordination of their natural resources and economies to counter the economic power of Western Europe and Japan.
* The US Congress in 1979 requested that the President's special trade representative conduct a study on how to achieve trilateral agreements with Canada and Mexico. That report is due in July. And the Senate up a Caucus on North America earlier this year.
* Cross-border negotiations between provincial and state officials have increased in recent years, centered on the transnational problems involving water, energy, and pollution.
"Working through the states rather than the federal government in Washington would allow the US to deal with both the centralized Mexican government and relatively decentralized Canadian government, suggests Dr. Sidney Weintraub of the University of Texas at Austin.
Also recommended by numerous US experts on the North American accord proposal are incrmental steps modeled after the creation of the European Common Market, which set down roots with an iron and steel agreement in 1952.
It has been suggested that a less-galvanizing approach would be to begin easing trade barriers and pooling capital in just a few commodities.