North America’s three national leaders have unfinished business to take care of. In February 2014, at their most recent summit, in Toluca, Mexico, they declared they would make the continent “the most competitive and dynamic region in the world” and set “new global standards for trade, education, sustainable growth, and innovation.”

The reference to “new global standards” indicates the region’s ambitions for engagement with the rest of the world. North American global engagement, perhaps even more than specific trilateral issues, goes to the heart of what North America could and should do and be in the global context in the 21st century.

We need to look beyond the daily irritants of softwood lumber disputes, immigration and visa issues, and transportation infrastructure. What the leaders should be seized with is the challenges that are facing the entire planet, and not just the hemisphere: global climate, global health and global food security. Together, the United States (a global hegemonic power), Canada (a highly networked middle power) and Mexico (a dynamic, relatively youthful developing country) are a trio that is uniquely suited to set a broad innovation agenda. In fact, innovation should be a guiding principle for the agenda of the North American Leaders Summit later this month in Ottawa.

A partnership involving these three particular countries would send a powerful message to the world about the legitimacy that is essential for any approach to global problems. Initiatives generated by our North American triumvirate will have strong moral and political legitimacy in a global context, having been decided in three democratic countries taking into account the needs of their very different populations.

A partnership involving these three particular countries would send a powerful message to the world about the legitimacy that is essential for any approach to global problems.

To date, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears to be off to a strong start in his bilateral relations with both the Mexican and American presidents. While we will inevitably see scuffles over particular issues in the future, all three countries have the diplomatic capacity necessary to smooth over the unavoidable blips in the bilateral relationships.

The Ottawa summit should include the lifting of the Canadian visa requirements on Mexicans, as well as the conclusion of negotiations regarding the details of a Trusted Traveller Program in the region. We should hear more details on an energy partnership that includes both traditional and renewable energy forms, as well as a trilateral climate accord in line with the Paris Agreement. Ideally this should be an accord that would permit further expansion into the hemisphere in the future. Finally, all these potential agenda items should be linked through a common competitiveness and innovation agenda that brings together research councils and communities, technology hubs and accelerators, and corporate might from all three countries to tackle global threats.

Innovation speaks to fundamental issues regarding research and education in all three countries. In terms of student exchanges and international students, the US has moved forward aggressively with its 100,000 Strong program, designed to send American students across the hemisphere and bring Latin American students into the States. Indeed, there has been much talk over the years of expansion of student exchanges in all three countries. Canada has put in place an international education strategy that includes Mexico, but it is not a priority country. Rather than belabouring the dearth and relative weakness of student exchange programs specific to Mexico and Canada, the focus should be on research partnerships and joint initiatives by national research councils for both the sciences and the humanities. The corporate community has an important role to play: linking training and mentorship programs across North American borders and creating junior staff exchange programs would go a long way in building the trilaterally aware executives needed by the three countries to sponsor and support a collaborative innovation agenda.

The US and Mexico have created “high-level” consultative groups specifically for the discussion of economic and educational issues. These groups — the US-Mexico High-Level Economic Dialogue and the U.S.-Mexico Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation and Research (FOBESII) — meet every year. Canada would likely be very welcome to join FOBESII, yet it has not done so, the explanation being that it has an international education strategy, and it seems that this overall strategy takes priority over a Mexico-specific internationalization effort.

Trilateral climate and energy initiatives are well-established: at a two-day meeting in Winnipeg earlier this year, the North American energy ministers signed a memorandum of understanding that set up a number of working groups. Specifically, these groups deal with low-carbon electricity; clean energy technologies; energy efficiency; carbon capture, use and storage; climate change adaptation; and emissions reductions in the oil and gas sector. These climate and environmental initiatives should serve as models for initiatives to deal with other global challenges.

These climate and environmental initiatives should serve as models for initiatives to deal with other global challenges.

In the area of health, Canada and Mexico are already working on initiatives to combat the Zika virus plaguing so many countries in the hemisphere. The fight against the SARS/H1N1 virus was an example of very strong Canadian-Mexican cooperation and collaboration. Another somewhat smaller example was the joint Monterrey- Manitoba barley research initiative on blood cholesterol in the 1980s. Another Monterrey-Manitoba initiative, Growing Food and Justice for All, gained significant support and profile in the past decade throughout North America.

Finally, as NAFTA has been derided during the US Democratic and Republican primaries, and as the Trans-Pacific Partnership appears to be contentious in all three countries, it would seem to make sense to discuss the creation of some sort of joint North American commission or at least discussion on trade agreement challenges. Such a commission would make use of both digital diplomacy and traditional forms of public outreach, connecting with the policy networks in all three countries.

In sum, the creation of strategies to deal with the greatest threats to humanity — climate and environment, health and food security — will require research and innovation. Basic education and joint study and exchange programs can help build a culture of academic collaboration. But that culture can flourish only when governments put policies and strategies in place that encourage and promote academic, research and business partnerships. Our three North American countries are primed and ready for those policies in order to become an example to the world’s population of the promise of liberal-democratic cooperation.

Photo: Harvepino / Shutterstock

Twitter photo: Susan Walsh / Canadian Press

This article is part of the North American Relations special feature.


Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission. Here is a link on how to do it. | Souhaitez-vous réagir à cet article ? Joignez-vous aux débats d’Options politiques et soumettez-nous votre texte en suivant ces directives.

Jennifer A. Jeffs is a senior research associate with the Creating Digital Opportunity project of the Innovation Policy Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License

More like this