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The Summit Pandemic

Christopher Sands & Greg Anderson

U. S. President Barack Obama is said by White House insiders to be suffering from a bad case of “summit fatigue.”

Since his inauguration in January, Obama has been on the road for nearly a week every month. Domestic policy advisers, pointing to the president’s daunting domestic agenda—stimulating the economy, sorting out banks and auto companies, enacting climate change legislation, remaking the U. S. health-care sector, and tackling immigration reform—complain that Obama’s foreign travel makes him unavailable for lobbying Congress and the American public, as only he can do.

The international community has become inundated with summits. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, there was the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, the G7 and NATO; today our leaders go to all kinds of meetings, the G20, NATO summits, WTO negotiations, the Summits of the Americas, Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) meetings, and UN climate change talks, to name a few. We even have hybrid meetings such as last June’s G8 Summit in L’Aquila, Italy where the number of attending countries expanded, arguably transforming the meeting into something like the “G8+BRICs+Friends.”

Next up: the North American leaders meeting in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Sunday and Monday. This was the fifth in a series of annual meetings proposed by former U. S. president George W. Bush as part of his Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America initiative, the SPP.

Heading into the Guadalajara meeting, numerous questions have been raised. Now that Bush is gone, will the controversial SPP continue at all? Given summit fatigue and domestic priorities, do these leaders really need another annual meeting on their calendar? And in Washington, there is the question: Do we need to devote a whole summit to just Canada and Mexico?

Too much face time?

Obama has made the answer to the last of these questions clear by attending the Guadalajara summit, and plans to announce he will attend the next North American leaders meeting as well, which Canada will host in 2010. NAFTA and North American relations figured prominently in Obama’s foreign policy statements during the presidential campaign, and this former “community organizer” has shown that he recognizes the importance of neighbourhood issues. Between his inauguration and the meeting in Guadalajara, Obama will have met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper eight times and with Mexican President Felipe Calderon six times, including presidential visits to each country and at international summits both attended.

There are doubtless members of Obama’s own cabinet who have had less face time with him than Stephen Harper.

There has been, and still is, plenty to talk about. All three North American countries have parallel efforts underway to stimulate the economy. They share an auto industry that is in grave trouble. They share a continental ecosystem where winds and water bring the climate policies of one country across the border to the others—and share a largely-integrated energy market for oil, gas, and electricity. Border and immigration policies have an impact on the competitiveness of firms in these three economies as they confront European and Asian rivals.

In eight months, the Obama administration has given a clearer indication of its policy outlook; the Canadian and Mexican governments, in power longer, have done the same. Yet, we might call these “unilateral” policy agendas since coordination among the three countries has been sparse.

Obama sets agenda

Guadalajara looks to be something of an agenda-setting exercise with the new U. S. president. However, pre-summit discussions suggest several indicators of the road ahead. First, given the interconnections among the three North American economies, the leaders hope to coordinate national stimulus efforts so that they don’t work at cross-purposes. This means addressing Canadian and Mexican concerns over “Buy American” provisions in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that the Obama administration thought were fixed. Energy was another mutual concern: The U. S. has committed to “clean energy dialogues” with both Canada and Mexico, and it makes sense to bring these two dialogues together to share research and ideas and leverage public investment in this area.

Washington officials are also hopeful that the Guadalajara meeting might produce a common front on global climate change that the North American countries could press for together at the upcoming UN-sponsored climate change negotiations in Copenhagen. European countries have been working under an emissions cap and trading regime and this experience has fostered greater unity of perspective; in Asia, China and India have been the most vocal developing countries arguing against radical action that might hurt their economies. North America, in the middle, would make a real contribution if it could articulate a position acceptable to a developing economy (Mexico), a major energy producer (Canada), and a high-consumption country (The United States).

Co-ordinating policies, working out differences in regulation and inspection standards to improve North American competitiveness, and forming common, continental positions to take to global forums: these were the tasks that the SPP was designed to facilitate. There were notable successes. The co-operative effort by Mexico, Canada, and the United States in response to the outbreak of the H1N1 swine-flu virus is one example, since it followed a pandemic response plan that was developed by SPP working groups. Similarly, food safety officials in all three countries showed that they had learned from the BSE crisis when, using an SPP-developed protocol, they responded to evidence of salmonella contamination in Mexican tomatoes and peppers last summer with far less disruption to agriculture and trade.

Yet for many of the officials in the Obama administration, the fatal flaw in the SPP is that it often emphasizes process over results. Twenty working groups of officials from the three governments met privately, often in telephone conference calls that frustrated calls for transparency, allowed various conspiracy mongers to claim that the SPP was a sinister plot by cynical elites, and distracted from the goals of the effort, forcing leaders to repeatedly counter public misperceptions.

Reshaping summitry

So, it appears that Guadalajara may represent the abandonment of the SPP nominally, but work toward its objectives will continue through the annual leaders meetings where Obama, Harper and Calderon will task cabinet officials to meet to work on specific shared priorities; and cabinet ministers will in turn assign personnel to work out differences so that a report can be made to the leaders on progress in time for their next meeting or phone call.

Typical of the Obama approach, this pragmatism will place results ahead of market ideology and process concerns. It will also begin by making clear to the public in all three countries what it is that their governments are attempting to do, issue by issue.

Underlying this shift from the SPP to a new model of North American consultation and co-ordination is the conviction that there is value in having the leaders meet annually and having the governments of Canada, Mexico and the United States address regional issues together, notwithstanding the numerous bilateral meetings and multilateral summits that occur already.

Stephen Harper should take note of the way that Obama has reshaped North American summitry, keeping it trilateral, but trying to make it results-oriented. In 2010, Canada will host both the sixth North American leaders’ meeting, and the next G8 (and friends) summit. By then, as U. S. midterm elections in November 2010 loom large for Obama, his “summit fatigue” will be at a peak.

The cure for the pandemic spread of summits and global confabs will involve serious triage, and meetings that fail to produce change will be the first to be eliminated. Canada has historically used bilateral meetings, regional organizations, and global forums to enhance the reach of its policies.

Making summits that advance Canada’s interests produce results that justify the time and expense invested in them should be a foreign policy priority.

From Guadalajara: Over to you, Ottawa.

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