WACO, Tex., March 23 -- President Bush and the leaders of Mexico and Canada agreed Wednesday to increase security and economic cooperation at a rare three-way summit intended to ease recent tensions over trade, immigration and defense that have divided the United States and its two neighbors.
By inviting Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin to meet him here, and later to join him for lunch and a ties-off tour of his nearby ranch, Bush tried to put the rifts of his first term behind him just as he had done during his recent trip to Europe. But the one-day summit did nothing to resolve the underlying issues that have stirred resentment to both the north and the south.
Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, left, and Mexican President Vicente Fox, right, walk with President Bush as they tour his Crawford, Tex., ranch.
(Jason Reed -- Reuters)
"Look, we've got differences," Bush said at a news conference with Fox and Martin after their main talks at Baylor University. "I don't know if you'd categorize them as differences that would then prevent us from finding common ground. I don't view it that way. I understand why people disagree with certain decisions I have made, but that doesn't prevent us from cooperating."
The other two leaders echoed the sentiments and largely focused on areas of agreement rather than conflict. But each also made sure to raise nettlesome points with Bush, both in public and in private, with Fox lobbying for the liberalization of U.S. immigration rules and Martin pushing for trade relief for Canadian beef and softwood lumber. None of the three leaders publicly mentioned the schism over the U.S.-led war in Iraq, which Mexico and Canada opposed.
The three announced an initiative dubbed the "Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America," which is designed to establish a common continental security perimeter against outside threats while facilitating the legal flow of people and trade across shared borders and increasing cooperation on energy, the environment and bioterrorism.
Among other things, the three governments agreed to develop standardized rules for screening people and cargo arriving in North America, regardless of which country is the first point of entry. The initiative was devoid of much detail beyond such broad goals, but the leaders directed their Cabinet secretaries and ministers to form a dozen working groups tasked with identifying concrete steps and to report back within 90 days.
The relationships with Mexico and Canada remain among the most important for the United States. With the three bound together by the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994, nearly a third of U.S. trade is conducted with the two neighbors, and Canada and Mexico are the nation's two largest oil suppliers. The thousands of miles of borders the United States shares with the two countries will be crossed nearly 400 million times in 2005, according to estimates.
"We've got a large border with Canada; we've got a large border with Mexico," Bush said. "There are some million people a day crossing the border from Mexico to the United States, which presents a common issue, and that is: How do we make sure those crossing the border are not terrorists or drug runners or gun runners or smugglers?"
But against the backdrop of security concerns, the three leaders said they want to build on NAFTA and enhance economic integration to better compete against surging competitors such as the European Union, China and India. "North America should be the most competitive region in the world," Fox said.
Independent analysts said the Waco agreement is an important step after a period of friction dating to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when Bush turned his attention away from the two neighbors to the threat of international terrorism. The discord deepened over the Iraq war and the persistent gulf between the competing goals of free trade and border security.
"Things have been tense with both neighbors," said Sidney Weintraub, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The big concern the other two countries have had is that security measures that might be taken not damage any future movement of goods and services."
Before Wednesday's summit, Weintraub said, he had expected that "nothing would come out of it but flowery language." But he added: "I'm a little more impressed that ministers are going to report back. That's still more than I expected."
Gordon Giffin, who was one of President Bill Clinton's ambassadors to Ottawa, agreed that the 90-day deadline could set in motion significant changes. "A summit meeting of the leaders is progress for Mexico and Canada," he said. "Truthfully, countries like Mexico and Canada have to strive to get the attention of the American president." By investing time in the U.S. neighborhood, he said, Bush is "returning to something he originally meant to be doing."
Both Fox and Martin have nursed separate grievances with Bush. Fox has been disappointed that Bush never pushed through Congress a plan to grant temporary guest-worker status to millions of illegal immigrants. Just last week, Fox complained about U.S. construction of a wall along the border near San Diego, declaring that "no country that is proud of itself should build walls."
Martin recently rejected Canadian participation in the U.S. missile defense system, and when he tried to explain, Bush did not return the call for more than a week. Martin remains exercised about punitive U.S. tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber and a U.S. court decision prolonging a ban on Canadian beef amid concerns over mad cow disease.
Bush offered nothing new to his guests on those fronts. He promised to keep pushing for the guest-worker plan, but he offered little hope of success in the face of strong opposition from fellow Republicans. "Mr. President, you've got my pledge, I'll continue working on it," Bush told Fox. "You don't have my pledge that Congress will act, because I'm not a member of the legislative branch."
In a nod to Fox, Bush condemned plans by a group of Americans calling itself the Minuteman Project to patrol the border and hunt for Mexicans trying to slip into the country. "I'm against vigilantes in the United States of America," Bush said. "I'm for enforcing law in a rational way. That's why you got a Border Patrol, and they ought to be in charge of enforcing the border."
As for Canada, Bush said nothing about missile defense, and Martin took the issue off the table. "The file is closed," the Canadian leader said. Martin emphasized the positive. "Our relationships are very, very strong," he said, "and in a wide range of areas, and the fact that the three of us are meeting here today, and that we have put out what is really quite an ambitious program that is going to be measurable, I think is an indication of that."