GUADALAJARA, Mexico — President Barack Obama arrives in Mexico this evening for 18 hours of speed diplomacy with the United States’ bordering neighbors, which will yield more discussions than solutions.
Obama will huddle up with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a series of meetings set to brush over a broad sweep of issues that concern all three nations —– from the economy and energy to swine flu and drug cartels.
But tensions will surface when the talks with America's third- and first-largest trading partners turn to trade.
Calderon and Harper will specifically be looking for Obama to back off two U.S. policies they view as harmful to their economies at best and violations of international trade agreements at worst: a ban on Mexican trucks operating in the United States and a provision in the $787 billion economic stimulus package designed to favor American companies.
The trade concerns pose a dilemma for Obama. For Mexico and Canada, his handling of them is a litmus test of sorts, one that could set the tone of the new administration’s relationship with its neighbors. The U.S. government already faces a $6 billion trade lawsuit and a couple billion more dollars in new, retaliatory tariffs the Mexican government has imposed on imported goods.
But sitting squarely on the opposite side of both issues is one of Obama’s key constituencies: labor. The so-called buy American provision in the stimulus bill has strong backing from the U.S. steel and construction industries, and the Teamsters Union that represents American trucking companies is the lead advocate for the ban on Mexican trucks in the United States.
And so in his second trip to Mexico since taking office, Obama will attempt to stave off further confrontation with his counterparts to the north and south while reaching no concrete resolutions.
As Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary, told reporters on Friday, “We don't expect to announce anything big coming out of this weekend.”
The only expected agreement at the end of the North American Leaders’ Summit, as the meeting is officially called, is a joint statement on how the three countries seek to combat swine flu, the first cases of which were reported in Mexico this past April.
Obama is scheduled to arrive in Guadalajara around 5:30 p.m central time today and will be en route back to Washington shortly after 1 p.m. on Monday.
The president will meet one on one with Calderon tonight, after which the two leaders join Harper for a working dinner. Before retiring to their hotels, the three men will attend an event at the city’s Cabanas Cultural Center.
Obama, Calderon and Harper are scheduled to meet for two hours again Monday morning before posing for a group photograph and holding a joint press conference.
While the summit is expected to be short on tangible accomplishments, the larger expectation is that the leaders will be closer to consensus on key issues heading into more expansive meetings with global leaders later this year, namely the G-0 summit in Pittsburgh next month and the U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen in December.
It’s unclear if the three nations will emerge from the upcoming meetings closer to a compromise on trucking and buy American, both of which require action from Congress.
Harper is expected to present Obama with concerns expressed by Canadian companies that the buy American provision precludes them from competing for construction projects funded with stimulus money. The Obama administration has said that it is working toward a solution.
The administration has said the same in regard to the Mexican trucking issue. As it stands, the North American Free Trade Agreement requires the United States to allow Mexican trucks to cross the border, but the Teamsters has successfully argued to Congress that Mexican trucks are unsafe.
During the Bush administration, Congress adopted a pilot program under which some Mexican trucks were allowed to cross the border. Obama opposed the program as a senator — and in a pre-summit briefing with reporters, his advisers did not say he had changed his mind, only that the White House is working with Congress on the issue.
In March, Congress put an end to the trucking pilot program, under pressure from the Teamsters. Now Mexican trucks must stop at the border, so the goods they’re carrying can be transferred onto U.S. trucks.
Mexico pushed back by tacking additional tariffs onto goods imported by the United States, and Mexican truckers filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government for violating NAFTA.
“We’re working with Congress to address safety concerns that they have about the U.S.-Mexican trucking program, and we’ll do so in a way that’s consistent with our international obligations,” Michael Froman, deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, told reporters in advance of the summit.
Overall, National Security Adviser James Jones characterized the summit as “a step in the continuing dialogue from which agreements will undoubtedly come.”
“I think you get in trouble when you wait too long before talking to your neighbors,” Jones told reporters in advance of the summit.
This is the fifth annual North American Leaders’ Summit and the first of Obama’s presidency. Obama has met with Calderon and Harper separately in their home countries and will host Harper next month at the White House.
The last time Obama was in Mexico, he and Calderon announced an agreement on a framework the two countries would follow to deal with energy and climate change issues.
The two leaders have also spent ample time discussing how to effectively combat the increase in violence along the border from drug cartels.
Specifically, questions have been raised in the United States over the increasing role Mexico’s military has played in policing border violence.
The White House has said the role of the Mexican military is up to the Mexican government, but officials also have made clear that the topic remains widely open to discussion between the two countries.