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Leaders Defend NAFTA Policies at Trade Summit

April 22, 2008 at 6:30 PM EST
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President Bush criticized the Democratic presidential candidates Tuesday for vowing to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement at a trade summit with Canadian and Mexican leaders in New Orleans. A reporter considers the prospects for trade negotiations.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, a look at the North American talks under way among the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: At the New Orleans summit, President Bush, along with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Mexican President Felipe Calderon, warned against rolling back the North American Free Trade Agreement.

NAFTA has been an issue on the American presidential campaign trail, blamed for job losses in the U.S.

For more, I’m joined by Michael Abramowitz, who covered the meeting for the Washington Post.

And, Michael, what were the main agenda items for this North American summit?

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ, Washington Post: Well, there were several main agenda items, Ray. One was the border security. Another was immigration. But the big one, as you suggest, was trade.

The summit took place amidst what one could call a certain protectionist sentiment that’s being voiced on the Democratic presidential trail. And there was a lot of attention paid to trade here in New Orleans.

Gauging opinions in Mexico, Canada

Michael Abramowitz
The Washington Post
The key thing here is that all three leaders -- Calderon, Harper and President Bush -- are all fierce defenders of free trade in general and NAFTA in particular.

RAY SUAREZ: Is NAFTA controversial among elected leaders or among the populations in Mexico and Canada?

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: My understanding is that's very similar to what's going on in the United States, where there is some controversy over NAFTA among those who feel they've been kind of left behind economically over the last 15 years.

But the key thing here is that all three leaders -- Calderon, Harper and President Bush -- are all fierce defenders of free trade in general and NAFTA in particular.

And all three of them took the opportunity at this summit to really make the case that NAFTA has been a boon for all three countries, in terms of jobs, in terms of economic growth, and, as Calderon said yesterday, in terms of reducing immigration from what it would have been if NAFTA had not taken place, which I think he saw as an effort to appeal to a domestic audience in America.

Foreign leaders' message to U.S.

Michael Abramowitz
The Washington Post
They think it would be a bad idea to renegotiate NAFTA, as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have suggested on the campaign trail.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I was just going to ask you that, whether the Mexican president and the Canadian prime minister demonstrated in their remarks or in the final communiques that they now had a chance to speak to the populations of the other countries.

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: Well, I think they both are kind of treading a little bit carefully, shall we say, because they don't want to be seen as interfering in the American presidential campaign. And both today at the joint news conference took pains to say it's up to Americans to decide who the next president will be.

But they both made it quite clear that they're very fiercely defended -- excuse me, they're fiercely in favor of free trade. And, in particular, they think it would be a bad idea to renegotiate NAFTA, as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have suggested on the campaign trail.

Maintaining border security

Michael Abramowitz
The Washington Post
You've got to remember that Canada is the number-one U.S. trading partner. It provides a huge amount of our energy products here. And they are very anxious to keep that flows going.

RAY SUAREZ: Border security has been an issue among all three neighbors. But while so much attention has been paid to the Mexico-U.S. border, isn't the U.S. trying to also harden the border with Canada?

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: Yes, they are. And that was interesting that Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, talked about that a little bit today.

He talked about how there's been a hardening of the border, I think it was his language, over the last several years, constricting the flow of goods and services in either direction.

You've got to remember that Canada is the number-one U.S. trading partner. It provides a huge amount of our energy products here. And they are very anxious to keep that flows going. And Harper made that point very clearly today at the joint news conference.

Troop presence in Afghanistan

Michael Abramowitz
The Washington Post
I think the hope of the summiteers here was to kind of keep making slow and steady progress on that, not expecting to make big breakthroughs. Those big breakthroughs will probably have to wait until next year when there's a new president.

RAY SUAREZ: Did Afghanistan come up at all? It's something of a controversial presence for Canadian troops in Afghanistan. And the United States has been trying to get NATO members to be more active there.

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: Canada did come up a little bit yesterday. Harper and President Bush had a bilateral yesterday, sort of in advance of the three-way meetings that they had last night and this morning.

Canada, of course, has a considerable number of troops in Afghanistan. They've been really one of our strongest allies in the fight in Afghanistan. And basically they recommitted to that.

They actually recommitted to that several weeks ago at the NATO summit in Romania. And Bush yesterday expressed appreciation for Canada's involvement in Afghanistan.

RAY SUAREZ: Maybe this was not the year for big agreements, being President Bush's last year coming to the summit?

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: It was definitely not the year for big agreements. I think one thing that's interesting, Ray, about this summit is that the building blocks of the relationships between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico are fairly mundane, wonky kinds of things, but important.

They include immigration, secure borders, trade, regulatory matters, intellectual property. I think the hope of the summiteers here was to kind of keep making slow and steady progress on that, not expecting to make big breakthroughs. Those big breakthroughs will probably have to wait until next year when there's a new president.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Abramowitz of the Washington Post, thanks for joining us.

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: It's great to be here, Ray.