Serious "ranch diplomacy" may occur Wednesday when President Bush meets the leaders of Canada and Mexico. His Texas home is often a personal venue to cut deals. Disputes over trade and security, of course, will be on the table. But this trilateral summit - coming 11 years after NAFTA went into effect - could also start to build a more cohesive North American community.
That's no light task. The United States so towers over its neighbors - far more than Germany does in the European Union - that tighter policy coordination would be difficult. The playful, but pointed, words of the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau that Canada's relationship with the US is like that of "a mouse in bed with an elephant ... no matter how friendly ... one is affected by every twitch and grunt," are instructive.
The Iraq war showed just how much US concerns for itself after 9/11 can rupture ties with two neighbors who prefer to chart a different course in foreign affairs. Yet Mr. Bush and his counterparts, Vicente Fox of Mexico and Paul Martin of Canada, can find a way to reconcile powerful American interests with Canadian and Mexican fears of being overwhelmed by those interests.
Proximity of nations in this globalized era doesn't willy-nilly lead to closer ties as in the past, when distance mattered much more. But these three neighbors surely can work harder to find more areas of cooperation while still chipping away at individual disputes, and thus bring about the kind of self-reinforcing benefits a continental community can offer. Look at the EU's rising clout in world political forums and in business.
This trio of nations hasn't, for instance, done nearly enough to create a single North American market. The increasingly competitive global economy has at times frustrated efforts to make adjustments to the shortcomings and inequalities of NAFTA. And domestic lobbies have thrown up too many defenses of their interests, ruining the greater good of open markets.
That greater good includes further boosting Mexico's economy so its poorest people don't continue to risk their lives trying to enter the US illegally for work. Instead, both the US and Mexico seem to be hardening their positions as this mass migration just grows and grows.
Mr. Fox's government, for instance, publishes manuals instructing citizens on how to safely cross the border without explicitly calling for an end to illegal crossings. This kind of action has so fueled post-9/11 US fears that it's lost control of its southern border that a private group called "Minuteman Project" plans to send hundreds of volunteers and dozens of aircraft to patrol the Arizona-Mexico border for a month starting April 1. The stated purpose is to highlight the inadequate funding of the border patrols. Politicians of all stripes will recognize it as a none-too-subtle statement of growing anti-immigrant sentiment.
At the summit, Fox may well ask Bush for an amnesty for the 10 million-plus illegal migrants in the US, while Bush may cling to his vague plans for a guest-worker program that could lead to an amnesty. Either idea is a nonstarter with most Americans, and should be laid aside for other solutions.
The much-closer US-Canadian ties are currently in a cold snap over security issues. After sitting out the Iraq war, Ottawa recently decided to opt out of the planned US missile-defense system, mainly due to a reluctance to weaponize space.
Bush should not let these differences prevent close personal ties with Mr. Martin, who did decide to increase defense spending by US$10.2 billion, even as Canada tries to carve a global role for itself as a champion of "soft power" to resolve conflicts.
Canada, the US, and Mexico should decide to hold annual trilateral summits. There is ample consensus on many issues that need constant refinement. On security, for instance, all three can work better to expand cooperation to better secure airports and harbors.
Regardless of difficulties, each leader should remember that even before the summit begins, the adjective "good" should remain an antecedent for neighbors who share a continent bounded by the two oceans.