To heck with all the blather you're hearing about the “Three Amigos” meeting of President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. If this year's North American Leaders Summit was a three-man buddy flick, the plot would revolve around the guy who failed to bring the beer and sandwiches on the big camping trip. And that guy would be Obama, who carted the equivalent of an empty cooler to a one-day summit in Toluca, Mexico.
Want a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline that could help to knit together the hemisphere's energy market? “Sorry, Steve, that's still under review.” Immigration reform to resolve the status of 11 million Hispanics left in limbo? “Lo siento, Enrique — I can't get those bad Republicans to go along.” How about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which could turbocharge trade and investment among the U.S., Canada, Mexico and nine other countries? “Guys, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi both told me 'Manana' — at least, that's the printable version of what they said.
Fact is, economic integration has been chugging along since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement 20 years ago. Every day, $1.7 billion worth of goods cross the U.S.-Canada border, and $1.4 billion worth crosses the U.S.-Mexico border. Intra-regional trade now amounts to more than $1 trillion a year. Toluca, the site of this year's meeting, is home to two major Chrysler plants; its leading U.S. metro trading partner is Detroit. Yet from energy and manufacturing and increasingly to services, the economies of the U.S., Canada and Mexico could substantially deepen their already significant integration — if they had sufficient political support from the U.S. side.
During the Obama years, however, building a deeper and more multifaceted relationship hasn't gotten much attention. Unhappiness over Keystone has sucked out most of the oxygen to the north, and border security still dominates the relationship with the south. The Obama administration has made some effort to deepen cooperation with Mexico by creating a high-level economic dialogue — but just how many places can Vice President Joe Biden be at once? Even without the partisan obstacles in Washington that block progress, neither Obama nor Secretary of State John Kerry has seemed willing to invest much political capital or attention on either neighbor. Obama's State of the Union address this year, for instance, mentions neither.
That kind of neglect is a shame because presidential leadership in this area would pay huge and quick dividends. The North American idea needs a strong champion, not least to wake Americans up to the relationship's potential, which is obscured in the popular mind by stupid jokes about Canadians and paranoid fears about Mexicans. To give just one example of how far the relationship has to go: There are only 4,000 Americans studying in Mexico and only 14,000 Mexicans studying in the United States. That's puny. South Korea has nearly five times that many students in the U.S. And there are nearly 10 times as many Americans studying in Italy as in Mexico. The U.S. has a feel-good initiative to try to fix that disparity, which is one small part of a continent-sized political, economic and cultural challenge that Obama has yet to take up. Never mind the mid-term elections, Mr. President — start making the case for the North America of the future now.
James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter @jamesgibney.