They are all too used to being neglected by U.S. presidents, but Canada and Mexico will soon come calling on Barack Obama, hoping that the incoming administration's foreign policy will accord them a higher priority than they have received in recent times.
The United States' North American neighbors may present issues that—probably thankfully—do not rise to the top of the urgent foreign policy problems Obama will face. But in terms of both countries' impact on life in the United States and the degree to which their societies and economies are intertwined with America's, both stand out as heavyweights.
Canada is the top U.S. trading partner (at $2 billion a day) and top U.S. energy supplier, and the world's longest undefended border separates the two countries. Mexico is the third-largest trading partner and source of U.S.-consumed oil, the U.S.-Mexican border is a focus of growing security concerns, and more than 9 million people living in the United States were born in Mexico.
Obama is popular in both countries, especially in Canada, and his arrival at the White House should give relations with both countries a policy booster shot.
Canada's Conservative government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has been embroiled in a distracting political dispute with opposition parties. But it is still anticipating some policy shifts from Washington. The Canadians want border-crossing procedures to be streamlined and sped up in light of costs and delays imposed by security-driven U.S. concerns after 9/11. It hopes as well to negotiate a bilateral climate-change agreement with the Obama administration, work together on Arctic energy and security issues, and coordinate antirecession moves, such as aid to the border-straddling auto industry.
Canada, like European members of NATO, is also expecting Obama to request that more troops be sent to Afghanistan. Unlike some of the European nations committing soldiers, Canada's have seen considerable combat against Taliban insurgents. Nearly 100 have been killed. Amid popular unease with the war, Canada has set a 2011 deadline for withdrawing its troops, but officials in Ottawa know that the Obama administration may well ask them to defer that pullout.
Worries about Obama center on his campaign comments expressing interest in renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement to strengthen its protections for labor and environmental standards. Both Canada and Mexico can be counted on to press for gains from their sides if the deal is ever reopened.
Mexico is also expecting change from Washington. Mexicans had reason to believe that relations with the United States would be a high priority for President Bush, but those hopes faded once his administration became preoccupied with terrorism, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Mexican President Felipe Calderón has instigated a high-profile military-police campaign against the country's violent and powerful narcotrafficking cartels, which—outfitted with privately obtained American guns and ammunition—are fighting each other in an unprecedented killing spree that has left some 4,000 people dead in 2008. Some of the violence has spilled over the U.S.-Mexican frontier; Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, alone has suffered more than 1,000 drug-related murders in 2008.
Mexican officials would like U.S. law-enforcement aid to rise above the $400 million approved earlier by Congress. Obama has spoken of spreading the antidrug assistance program to other Latin American countries and of toughening laws on U.S. assault weapons.
The Mexicans were also disappointed at the failure in Washington to win congressional approval for sweeping immigration reforms that were to have included a more flexible, three-year work visa program for Mexican migrants. Mexico's economy is buoyed by family remittances from both legal and illegal residents in the U.S., and the deepening recession is slicing into that support.
Obama has advocated tougher penalties on U.S. companies that employ illegal immigrants, as well as increased development aid to Latin America as a means of fostering job growth there.
The other North Americans will soon be pressing their agendas with Obama—though with the knowledge that, despite being neighbors, many others around the world will be doing likewise.