Summit Wrap-up: Three Amigos, and Some Issues

  • Share
  • Read Later

Fox, Chrétien and Bush celebrate at the end of the Summit of the Americas

By all accounts, George W. Bush was a modest success at the Summit of the Americas, flying low to the ground at his debut international conference with more backslapping than speechifying and reenforcing among his hemispheric peers, if not the leadership role befitting the world's only superpower, then at least his own reputation for plain speech, open ears and good humor.

Sure, there were the usual gaffes — addressing Jean Chrétien as "amigo," spelling out A-I-D-S and declining to answer questions "neither in French, nor in English, nor in Mexican" — but that stuff is charming now, right? Bush's assignment, along with the other 33 national leaders in attendance, was a pretty easy one — meet, get to know each other, congratulate each other on the strength of their varying degrees of democracy, and plan, definitely, to have a Free Trade Area of the Americas up and running by 2005.

Thirty-three of them did that, with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez obstreperously abstaining on the same gotta-check-with-my-congress grounds that everybody else felt free to ignore, and the summit ended not only with an "action plan" — a commitment of $20 billion from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank to strengthen democratic foundations in the Americas and prepare for free trade among nations at widely disparate levels of development — but also with some language right out of Bush's "compassionate conservatism" file: a promise to create a hemisphere in which "no one is left behind."

Then again, Bush managed to stick his neck pretty far out in front of his own Congress, expressing a confidence in getting "fast track" negotiating authority (through which he would be able to send future agreements home for an up-and-down vote rather than face a potentially crippling Hill amendment-fest) that few of those folks share. And he got a good look at the intra-hemisphere divisions that will be the big stumbling block for FTAA negotiations in the next few years.

"We have a choice to make," Bush said at the press conference for the closing ceremonies. "We can combine in a common market so we can compete in the long term with the Far East and Europe, or we can go on our own."

Too bad Brazilian president Henrique Cardoso wasn't standing anywhere near Bush at that moment. Brazil, to put it simply, is the head of the skeptics. Mercosur, the South American trading bloc, isn't as thorough a free-trade area as NAFTA, and is beset with internal squabbles. But they have their pride. When Brazil hears Bush talk about three competing world trade zones, it wonders whether South America wouldn't be better off as a fourth leg — doing, as it is now, a nice little business with Europe as well as North America — rather than living in the NAFTA shadow.

Bush rightly sells NAFTA as an example of how free trade can help the little partner along with the big — "Canada has benefited, Mexico has benefited, the U.S. has benefited" — but to Brazil, they all look pretty big up north, and Washington in particular doesn't seem to want to give as good as it gets. The last of the significant U.S. tariffs under NAFTA, known euphemistically as "anti-dumping laws," have deeply entrenched support in Congress, and Brazil has cause to wonder whether Latin American–produced commodities like sugar will ever find as hospitable a welcome in the U.S. as the U.S. expects its finished goods, from software to sitcoms, to get in South America.

But those are all next year's problems. Bush got in and out without making trouble, without getting any of that tear gas in his eyes, and without needing Colin Powell to correct anything he had said. The bar was pretty low, not just for Bush but for the whole affair, and aside from some snide remarks Chrétien made about democracy in Haiti — and Chavez's near-total lack of effort to pretend he likes the U.S. — everybody got along fine, and promised to get along even better next time.

Don't bet on it.