Neighbors who are not always friends

Bush's summit with Mexican and Canadian leaders will probably take small steps toward bolder integration.

At a time when America's foreign-policy plate is crowded with ample servings of the Middle East and Asia, President Bush is holding a summit of North America's three leaders in Texas Wednesday - with the focus on security and trade issues.

It's not a moment when relations for North America's geographically conjoined trio are the friendliest or most unified. Any talk of "los tres mejores amigos" - the three best friends - as Mr. Bush dabbles in his Spanish, will be for public consumption and won't reflect tensions over immigration (with Mexico) and unpopular US defense initiatives (with Canada).

Still, the summit demonstrates renewed interest in the Bush administration in improving cooperation among the three neighbors. And it comes as calls mount from some quarters for a second-generation leap forward in what proponents call "the North American community." Their argument: that the 21st-century world - which includes a rising commercial behemoth in China, a fast-emerging India, and a 25-nation European Union - demands further economic streamlining for North America.

"The rest of the world is not sitting back and waiting for North America to find its course," says William Weld, a former Massachusetts governor who recently cochaired an independent task force on North America. "The challenge," he adds, is that the leaders of the three countries meeting Wednesday "not get bogged down in this or that trade dispute, but [deliver] a vision for the future."

Bush joins Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and Mexican President Vicente Fox for meetings at Baylor University in Waco before hosting his two guests at a lunch at his Crawford ranch.

While the day of talks is indeed likely to focus on short-term concerns over border security and niggling trade disputes like Canadian timber sales to the United States, some experts say that updating the decade-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is what should top the agenda.

"This is an opportunity for the three leaders of North America to build on a vision of the future," says John Manley, a former deputy prime minister and minister of finance of Canada. Messrs. Manley and Weld are cochairs, along with former Mexican Finance Minister Pedro Aspe, of a Council on Foreign Relations task force that recommends creation of a North American Community by 2010.

Among the goals they recommend are a "common security perimeter" - so that "a terrorist trying to penetrate our borders will have an equally hard time doing so no matter which country he elects to enter first"; a common external tariff to further boost the ability to compete with outside competition; and a development plan for impoverished southern Mexico to reduce income gaps and relieve migration pressures.

Bush and his two "amigos" are expected to sign agreements calling for the enhancement of border security as well as trade-facilitating measures, but the accords are seen as falling short of any grand new vision. No matter how much a "NAFTA II" might make sense, the atmospherics among the three neighbors just aren't right for bold steps toward further integration, most experts say.

For their part, the US Congress and Americans in general are more focused on the continued arrival of illegal immigrants. A new study by the Pew Hispanic Center estimates the illegal Mexican population alone to be more than 6 million - with annual illegal arrivals nearing 500,000.

At the same time, recent US criticism of Mexico on a variety of fronts - from safety for US citizens in Mexico to inaction on curbing border crossings - has only fueled an estrangement that has been building since the 9/11 attacks.

The Texas summit "comes at a time when US relations with Mexico are not particularly splendid," says Mark Falcoff, a Latin America expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

But even if the moment isn't ripe for dramatic leaps forward, some experts say the economic challenge presented by new giants like China and India should prompt measures to bolster North America's competitiveness. "The competition from these countries is a legitimate concern, but given other realities the most interesting actions to take at this point are the day-to-day practical steps," says Sidney Weintraub, a NAFTA expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

In addition to measures to speed up the border-crossing time of business people and goods, Mr. Weintraub says a common external tariff is also a feasible goal for the three countries.

But if the three neighbors are serious about building up a common competitive edge, he adds, they will have to begin taking some of the steps - such as regulatory streamlining and other standardizations - that Europe took in the 1990s.

In addition to the free movement of goods and investment, the Europeans also worked on the free movement of people - one aspect of a more integrated community that is unlikely to advance in North America for many years. Experts note that despite pressure from Democrats for action, even Bush's proposal for a guest-worker program to legalize some of the millions of undocumented workers in the US faces a hostile Congress.

"We'll get to [eased movement of people] for North America someday," says Weintraub. "But we're likely to see it just as Mexicans don't want it so much anymore."

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