On January 20, 2009, if not before, a new national security adviser will tell the incoming president of the United States that the first two international visitors should be the prime minister of Canada and the president of Mexico. Almost every new president since World War II has followed this ritual, because no two countries in the world have a greater impact economically, socially, and politically on the United States than its neighbors. The importance of Canada and Mexico may, however, come as a surprise to most Americans, as well as to the new president. In the presidential campaign, instead of discussing a positive agenda for North America's future, the candidates have focused critically on two parts of that agenda, the 14-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and immigration. And overall, one could conclude from listening to the campaign that Iraq is key to U.S. national security, China is the United States' most important trading partner, and Saudi Arabia and Venezuela supply most of the United States' energy.
None of these propositions is true. For most of the past decade, Canada and Mexico have been the United States' most important trading partners and largest sources of energy imports. U.S. national security depends more on cooperative neighbors and secure borders than it does on defeating militias in Basra.
The new president will take office at a low moment in U.S. relations with its neighbors. The percentage of Canadians and Mexicans who have a favorable view of U.S. policy has declined by nearly half in the Bush years. The immigration debate in Congress and the exchange between the two leading Democratic presidential candidates on who dislikes NAFTA more has left a bitter taste in the mouths of Canadians and Mexicans. The ultimatum issued by Senators Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to Canada and Mexico -- renegotiate NAFTA on U.S. terms, or else -- hardly displayed the kind of sensitivity to the United States' friends that they
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