President Joe Biden has made a point to differentiate himself on the world stage from his predecessor, Donald Trump. With Mexico and Canada, that has meant lots of talk about diplomacy, dialogue and friendship after years of Trump’s attacks and threats against the two U.S. neighbors.
But Biden’s shift in approaches — less firebrand, more conciliatory — has not made him automatic friends with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who had an unlikely alliance with Trump. Nor has his personal chemistry with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who often clashed with Trump, meant a seamless U.S.-Canada relationship. Under Biden, disagreements and challenges with each country and the broader North American relationship abound.
On Thursday, Biden will meet jointly in person with López Obrador and Trudeau for the first time since taking office — and he’ll have to do more than just not be Trump. For Biden, the trilateral summit — the first since 2016 — will be an exercise in building back trust and making headway on some of the thorniest issues among the countries, including migration challenges, trade irritants and charting a path for regional economic recovery from the pandemic.
While there is no expectation of the three leaders emerging from the summit as best friends with all their issues resolved, government officials, former diplomats and regional experts in all three countries are optimistic they can build goodwill and make a stronger commitment to work together.
Biden’s election victory brought a sense of relief in Canada as it marked the end of an erratic stretch in the relationship under Trump. Though the three countries ultimately agreed to the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a revamped free trade agreement that’s currently being implemented, the former president’s provocations included threatening to rip up NAFTA, imposing tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum and launching very public personal insults at Trudeau.
Biden even made Trudeau the first leader he met with virtually after taking office. Although Trump visited Canada for a G-7 summit (which ended in disarray after he left early and refused to sign the final joint statement), the former president did not make an official bilateral visit to Canada to meet with Trudeau.
Despite hopes that Biden would rekindle the prime minister’s “bromance” with Barack Obama, his protectionist policies have made the friendship feel more transactional than neighborly.
“President Biden has doubled down on some of the Trump policies, and in other cases, taken actions that are directly against Canada’s interests,” said Perrin Beatty, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, in an interview. “What we haven’t seen is the rebuilding of the relationship that all of us hoped that we would see with the change in administrations.”
Biden’s America-first agenda has been feeding fears in corporate Canada about business prospects in the U.S., which is by far the country’s top trading partner. For example, Canadian business leaders worry Biden’s approach will freeze companies out of U.S. procurement opportunities and that his tax credit proposal for electric vehicles will damage Canada’s automotive sector.
Feeling heat at home on the matter, Trudeau has sharpened his language about his U.S. counterpart.
“It’s counterproductive for the Americans to bring in more barriers and limits on commerce between our two countries,” Trudeau said in French at a news conference Monday when asked about the risks for Canada from U.S. protectionism. “It’s an issue that I’ve already underlined very often with President Biden and it will certainly be part of important conversations that we’ll have later this week.”
Meanwhile, Biden faces his own set of challenges in meeting with López Obrador face-to-face.
The meeting presents a chance for the two men to dispel some distrust, even if the chemistry isn’t there between them.
But it’s unlikely the two leaders will be able to replicate López Obrador’s friendship with Trump. Both leaders built a relationship based on their respect for each other’s nationalist, authoritarian tendencies and their ability to mostly stay out of each other’s way on domestic issues, in spite of Trump’s regular insults of Mexicans and promises to build a border wall to keep out migrants, criminals, drugs and the coronavirus. López Obrador even came to call Trump a friend and the two men met at the White House last year.
“You do get a sense there’s more wariness in the relationship between López Obrador and Biden — and that’s ironic because people like me in the early days of Trump were writing the relationship was going to blow up and, in fact, it didn’t,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of think tank Council of the Americas and a former U.S. government official.
“But at the end of the day, there are times you really have to make your best efforts to get along — and I think this is one of those times,” Farnsworth added.
In Biden’s first year in office, López Obrador, a left-leaning leader known for his nationalist and populist tendencies, has rarely shied away from calling out the U.S. for what he considers interventionist approaches or U.S. meddling in other countries’ affairs. He also has moved aggressively to curb private investments in Mexico’s energy sector — a major sticking point with the United States for a variety of business and environmental reasons. In a statement ahead of the summit, Mexico even specified that López Obrador refuses to discuss his controversial electricity reforms during the Washington visit.
“López Obrador is trying to show he is the president of a sovereign country, but it’s my impression that if Biden and Trudeau talk to him openly, he will listen,” said Martha Bárcena, who stepped down earlier this year as Mexican ambassador to the U.S.
So far, the Biden administration has not shared details on what tangible results it hopes to get from the summit. In the president’s weekly schedule, the White House said the three leaders “will reaffirm their strong ties and integration while also charting a new path for collaboration on ending the COVID-19 pandemic and advancing health security; competitiveness and equitable growth, to include climate change; and a regional vision for migration.”
In the months leading up to the summit, Biden officials have approached the regional relationship as “more institutional,” Bárcena said. In September, for example, the U.S. and Mexico relaunched the high-level economic dialogue — and weeks later, both countries announced a new framework and dialogue for security cooperation.
Among major issues for the U.S. to tackle with Mexico is their frayed security relationship, as well as the continued need for cooperation on migration. The U.S. has long relied on Mexico for help in curbing the number of migrants making the trek to the U.S. southern border. Since the start of the pandemic, the U.S. has expelled hundreds of thousands of migrants back to Mexico without allowing them to seek asylum using a public health order known as Title 42.
Both countries remain in discussions over relaunching the Remain in Mexico policy, which forced migrants to wait in Mexico for their asylum cases to be heard, after a federal judge in August ordered that Biden reinstate the Trump-era rule, which critics say is illegal, inhumane and puts migrants in increased danger. The Biden administration, however, recently announced another attempt to end the policy.
Meanwhile, U.S. and Mexican officials have also been in discussions on how to tackle the conditions that force migrants to flee their home countries, though there has been some disagreement over how best to proceed. López Obrador, for example, has pushed for the U.S. to expand his tree-planting program, which he claims could help stem migration, and offer more temporary guest worker visas — neither of which the U.S. has embraced.
Biden, for one, continues to struggle with delivering on his campaign promise to create a fair and humane immigration system. And Congress remains unable to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Earlier this year, on the same day as a virtual meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris to talk about migration issues, the Mexican leader called out the U.S. for “interventionism” and “meddling” in the country over financing of a Mexican anti-corruption group. López Obrador claims that the group is aligned with his opposition.
López Obrador, often called by his initials AMLO, has also publicly diverged dramatically from the U.S. on foreign policy issues. In September, he welcomed Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro and Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel to Mexico for the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States’ summit. The U.S. is not part of the CELAC regional bloc.
On Mexican Independence Day, which landed the week of the summit, López Obrador — a supporter of the Cuban regime — called on Biden to “act with greatness and put an end to the political attacks on Cuba.” The Biden administration has been a vocal critic of the Cuban government’s repressive crackdown in the months since demonstrators in Havana and across the country took to the streets in July to demand freedom.
On Monday, a senior administration official said Biden would “certainly” raise the issue with López Obrador and Trudeau, as both countries maintain diplomatic and economic ties with the Cuban government.
“The fact that López Obrador is coming is a good thing,” said a longtime U.S.-Mexico watcher, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “He’s coming after hanging out with Maduro and Díaz-Canel and blasting us at the U.N., but the fact he’s coming is inherently a good thing.”
Ultimately, officials are expressing hope that the summit will lead to a stronger regional agenda after years of moving further apart from each other.
“If you see NAFTA, it’s the North American Free Trade Agreement. But if you see USMCA, it’s the U.S., Mexico and Canada. It’s the national interests of each country instead of the concept of a region,” Bárcena said. “We need to get back to the concept of a region — and I hope this summit is a first step.”