North America’s ‘Three Amigos’ Are Off-Key

Narrow domestic political agendas have left less room for the leaders of Canada, Mexico and the US to focus on a grand strategy for the hemisphere, says Eduardo Porter

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mexico's president, from left, U.S. President Joe Biden, and Justin Trudeau, Canada's prime minister.
By Eduardo Porter
January 09, 2023 | 09:37 AM

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Bloomberg Opinion — There are those who see the North American summit meeting on Tuesday as an opportunity to develop a regional strategy for an age of new challenges, from economics and geopolitics to the climate.

Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador sees an opportunity to hawk the little-used airport he built north of Mexico City.

“For friendship and for diplomacy we ask that [Joe Biden’s] plane should land at AIFA,” said López Obrador at one of his regular morning press conferences. Otherwise, “our conservative opponents would use that to say that the Felipe Angeles airport is not trustworthy, that not even President Biden accepted to come down there.”

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The ambition speaks to what the summit is unlikely to offer: grand strategy.

Biden and López Obrador may profess to have lofty goals. But, preoccupied by domestic political agendas, they have little time to achieve them. They need to score some points. Canada’s Premier Justin Trudeau can wax about the “electric vehicle supply chain” and enjoy the weather.

Airports aside, Biden is decidedly the neediest of the two. The administration is bracing for renewed attacks against its immigration policies by the new Republican majority in the House, including possible impeachment proceedings against the secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas.

Not only must the US president offer some solution to a chaotic border overrun by asylum seekers and other prospective immigrants from across the Americas and beyond. He must also address the public health crisis created by fentanyl, overwhelmingly smuggled from Mexico, which in 2021 killed more than 100,000 Americans by overdose.

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Last Thursday the White House announced a new package of border enforcement measures. Notably, it features help from AMLO, who apparently agreed to broaden a previous deal for Mexico to receive Venezuelans rejected by the United States to include also Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans.

Biden, however, may need more: The announcement said Mexico will take up to 30,000 prospective immigrants per month. In November (statistics for December aren’t out yet), border patrol agents encountered almost 90,000 prospective immigrants from these countries hoping to enter the United States.

There are other Mexico-made pebbles in Biden’s shoe. They include AMLO’s protectionist energy policies, which the United States and Canada have deemed violate non-discrimination commitments in the USMCA, the trade agreement binding the three North American nations. They include AMLO’s decision to phase out imports of genetically modified corn, as well as the herbicide glyphosate, probably starting in January 2025–a move that may breach the USMCA and would deprive corn growers in the Midwest of a top export market.

Comparatively, Lopez Obrador is sitting pretty. He still enjoys robust popularity ratings. Odds are decent that he will be able to install his preferred successor in the presidency when his term ends in October 2024.

In the past few weeks, he has been offering grand though implausible thoughts about North America’s future: ending imports and making North America self-sufficient in all it consumes, opening up the USMCA to all countries in the hemisphere and embracing European Union-style integration with supranational government institutions.

They come alongside declarations of friendship toward the American president, leavened–confusingly–with the standard anti-gringo fare that always plays well in Mexico’s peanut gallery.

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AMLO chided Biden for welcoming Volodymir Zelensky to “America,” a term that, in truth encompasses the whole continent. After Peru’s Congress removed President Pedro Castillo from office last month, he demanded that the US stop messing with Peru’s sovereignty. (This came just as Castillo’s replacement, Dilma Boluarte, accused AMLO of messing with Peru’s sovereignty and expelled Mexico’s ambassador to Lima.)

For all the blah-blah, however, AMLO also has real immediate concerns. He, too, needs Biden’s help, or at least his lenience.

The United States has soft-pedaled its complaint against Mexico’s new energy policies, refraining from opening legal proceedings under the terms of the regional trade pact. But the White House is under pressure by energy and farm interests that have a lot of political sway; it won’t be able to hold back forever.

What’s more, for all his popularity, AMLO has recently suffered some political blows. His bid last month for a constitutional amendment to upend the system overseeing Mexico’s elections failed. And more recently, his candidate to lead the Supreme Court lost. The winner seems eager to pursue charges that the president’s energy policies violate the Mexican constitution.

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However grudgingly he takes it, Lopez Obrador could do with a little Biden love.

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In what some observers see as a bid to defuse the energy dispute, AMLO has touted a grand plan with the US to produce lithium, electric vehicles and solar energy in the northern Mexican state of Sonora, in part to serve the semiconductor producers that Washington plans to draw to Arizona, just across the border.

Ahead of Biden’s visit, on Thursday Mexican authorities arrested the son of jailed drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, allegedly a major fentanyl trafficker, sparking violence across the state of Sinaloa. (Guzmán junior had been arrested before, in October 2019, but he was released on the orders of Lopez Obrador, ostensibly to end the violence the arrest sparked.)

Maybe everybody–AMLO, Biden, Trudeau–share an understanding about North America’s need for a strategy to engage with a changing world. AMLO surely understands that Mexico’s future prosperity hinges on its economic relations with the United States, which today buys more than three-quarters of its exports. Biden gets how important Mexico is as a supplier of energy and cheap labor for his plan to rein in globalization and bring production closer to home.

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo have been to Mexico to tout the opportunities offered there by the CHIPS Act. Climate Czar John Kerry has been to Sonora. Agreements are in place about ensuring the resilience of critical regional supply chains in the region and stuff like that. And this summit will offer some more of the same.

This week’s meetings, however, will be mostly about treading carefully. Everybody will be satisfied if they are over and nobody sustained political damage. And–good news–AMLO can brag that both Biden and Trudeau will land at his new airport.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Eduardo Porter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin America, US economic policy and immigration. He is the author of “American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise” and “The Price of Everything: Finding Method in the Madness of What Things Cost.”

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