4. When it comes to ‘irritant’ issues like softwood lumber, recognize the value in North American ministerial meetings
— Colin Robertson, former Consul-General in Los Angeles, Vice-Consul in New York, Consul in Hong Kong, and current vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ask of President-elect Donald Trump should be to preserve the loose institutional arrangements that oversee North American relations, specifically the regular meetings of ministers responsible for foreign affairs, trade, energy and defence. Other ministers — finance, environment, labour, industry — also meet but usually in a bilateral or multilateral setting like the G20. For these meetings to be successful it is vital that the responsible U.S. cabinet officer be present and actively engaged.
Over the years, meetings at the ministerial level have proven very useful as clearing houses for the important but not always strategic issues. These irritants (which would include, for example, bilateral issues like softwood lumber or country-of-origin-labeling) that can’t or won’t get resolved at the level of officials or ambassadors because of their political implications used to get bounced up to the leaders’ meetings. But they cluttered the agenda and diminished the value of these meetings. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice used to derisively call them the ‘condominium’ issues.
The energy ministers’ meetings, in particular, have acted as a catalyst for a lot of highly practical initiatives. By obliging officials to report regularly, things get done, especially as we increasingly need to manage North American energy interdependence to our competitive advantage.
North American integration is different than that of the European model, which is heavy on bureaucratic superstructure with its commission, council and parliament. It wouldn’t work for Canada, the U.S. or Mexico, but having regular meetings of key ministers on shared issues of joint concern makes a lot of sense and will both complement and enhance the annual meetings of the Three Amigos.