Howdy, Trading Pardners

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President Bush shakes hands with members of the Organization of American States

George W. Bush arrives in Quebec City on Friday to attend his first international conference, the Summit of the Americas, and the good news is that this year's meeting of the Western Hemisphere's 34 democracies calls for a diplomacy that's right up his alley: A few platitudes, one long-term vision, and a lot of male bonding.

For the participants, the Holy Grail of the Quebec summit is the same as it was in Miami in 1994 and in Santiago in 1998: the creation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), essentially an extension of NAFTA to the rest of Central and South America. By 2005, the dream goes, hemispheric borders from the top of Canada to Tierra del Fuego would be tariff-free.

It's the kind of goal that everyone on the guest list — from newcomers like Bush, Mexico's Vicente Fox and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez to older hands like Brazil's Henrique Cardoso and Canada's Jean Chretien — considers a good thing. How to get there, and how fast, is in considerably more dispute. Bush likes to call himself an "honest-to-God free trader," and has put FTAA high on his wish list. Mexico and Canada have fared well under NAFTA and have few fears about upping the ante. But smaller, less-developed countries in Central and South America are wary of forfeiting the revenues they get from tariffs — and of getting overwhelmed by its new NAFTA neighbors.

"The possibility of 2005 terrifies us," Venezuelan foreign minister Luis Alfonso Davila, currently president of the Andean Community of Nations, told TIME last week. "Our economies are absolutely not structured to compete in the big leagues."

Brazil has an additional concern — its own prominence atop the South American version of NAFTA, called Mercosur. Mercosur is beset with member squabbles and is far weaker than NAFTA in the scope and depth of its free-trade directives. Yet for the Brazilians — indeed, for most of South America — it is a matter of pride to have a regional economic identity separate from that of the U.S. and its large northern neighbors. In many ways, the FTAA negotiations will be the collision of NAFTA and Mercosur, and how much the southern half of the hemisphere is willing to be pulled along into globalization by the northern.

Not-inconsiderable resentment of perceived U.S. arrogance, plus a burgeoning trade relationship with Europe, doesn't hurt either. Brazil would probably prefer to be the third side of a NAFTA-E.U.-Mercosur triangle — the region, with $18 billion in trade last year (compared to NAFTA's $702 billion) is now a very distant third. FTAA is attractive to Brazil as a means of catching up, but the prospect of falling completely under U.S. sway is definitely not a selling point. Besides, in FTAA trade meetings scheduled for 2003 and 2004, Brazil and the U.S. will co-preside, so Brazil is not eager to make concessions with a position of increased leverage on the horizon.

"Mercosur is our destiny," Cardoso likes to say these days, "while the FTAA is an option."

Cardoso stayed coy when he came to Washington at the end of March; this time Bush will be leaning hard. Certainly the new president is thinking big, and he would love to deliver to Big Business the march toward hemispheric free trade that began with NAFTA and foundered under Clinton. (He would also have loved to bring "fast track" negotiating authority to the table in Quebec, but Congress plans on making him beg.) And he may be just the president to do it.

While Clinton burned most of his chits with Big Labor on NAFTA, Bush doesn't have any chits in the first place. Conservative Republicans are mostly OK with free trade as long as it's not with China (or Cuba) and everyone left of Jesse Helms has business lobbyists whispering in their ears. If he can win over a few southerners whose constituents still make a few things, like sugar, that you can buy cheaper from South America, he shouldn't have too much trouble at home. (Strictly speaking, he doesn't need fast track if he has the votes for FTAA.)

Most of the summit business will be conducted behind closed doors, to lessen pressure and loosen tongues; this is supposedly where Bush works his magic. And he comes to Quebec not only with the clout of an impatient superpower but a feel-good carrot for everybody concerned. The message: Democracy is flourishing in the region (this is the first Americas summit in history where no one will be wearing a military uniform). Free trade can make your democracies stronger. And with the global economy in trouble — Argentina, presently mired in an economic crisis, and Brazil, still showing its scars from 1999, will nod at this part — free trade is the best way to join hands so no one goes under.

Bush's job in Quebec is to say that stuff for the cameras, let once-leery Mexico and Canada do the free-trade proselytizing indoors, and basically convince Brazil and maybe even Venezuela that he's as sincere and as "humble" about foreign policy as he keeps telling Americans he is. Good firm handshakes all around, and afterward say that everyone had a "good, frank, open discussion of some important issues." Lay the personal groundwork for next year.

Oh — and he'll have to not get distracted by the expected mob of protesters banging on the fence outside. But by now Bush has that one down cold.