Carpe Diem, North America!

04/21/2015 01:11 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

This piece was co-written with Michael Kergin and Arturo Sarukhan.

For decades, the prism through which most Latin American and Caribbean nations have peered at the United States has had three sides: Cuba, migration and illicit drugs. The recently concluded Summit of the Americas in Panama City, with heads of state from across Hemisphere gathered under one roof for the first time since 1962, has changed that equation -- and created a chance to boldly recast Inter-American relations.

President Barack Obama's decision to seek the normalization of diplomatic ties with Havana -- which the three of us strongly support -- has dramatically changed the conversation in the Americas, and the President's Executive Action aimed at mitigating the human and economic costs of a dysfunctional immigration system in the United States was widely praised throughout the region. Of the most contentious issues, only counter-narcotics policy, with its complex landscape of marijuana legalization in the US on the one hand and eradication and interdiction abroad on the other, still causes pushback.

Traction on these issues, and the greater attention that Washington is devoting to the region, has created a window of opportunity especially for the United States, Canada and Mexico. How can the North American partners take advantage of the potential tectonic shifts caused by the Panamanian Summit? We have identified six drivers that could be the focus of greater coordinated action by our three countries to jointly advance the well-being, prosperity and security of the Americas as a whole, and move from the past towards the future.

First, we should lead efforts to strengthen compliance with human rights, civil liberties and the rule of law. Few issues impinge upon the future of the Hemisphere as much as the erosion of democratic governance, frailty of the rule of law and widespread corruption. The three North American partners, in tandem with others in Central and South America and the Caribbean, and alongside multilateral organizations, must take a stand to uphold the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Strengthening the rule of law will not only reconnect citizens to public policy; it will also provide many states with the toolbox to repair the corrosive effects of transnational organized crime and crime on the street. North America could also help lead the way as we head to next year's UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs to provide some badly needed blue-sky thinking as to how to recast a largely failed four decades-old policy on international drug control.

Second, North America holds the keys to an energy revolution. Despite the global effects of falling international prices of oil, North America -- as a result of technological breakthroughs in Canada and the U.S. and the huge promise of Mexico's landmark energy reform -- could be poised to develop a paradigm for energy efficiency, independence and security. This could become one of the most important geopolitical shifts of our time. Mexico and the US successfully negotiated an agreement on how to jointly exploit deep-sea reserves in the so-called Western Gap in the Gulf of Mexico. Normalization of ties with Cuba could eventually lead to Mexico, the U.S. and Cuba finding common ground in how to explore and exploit reserves in the Eastern Gap that abuts the maritime boundaries of the three nations. And together, North America could promote efficiencies in the Caribbean, on the back of the United States led Caribbean Energy Security Initiative, and along with partners like the Inter-American Development Bank, support interconnected electricity grids and natural gas pipelines throughout Central America.

Third, energy is intricately connected to sustainable growth and environmental preservation. The Americas boast seven of the 15 most biologically diverse nations on Earth, among them Mexico and the U.S. The three North American partners need to harmonize our respective environmental policies and initiatives. We need to come together to address region-wide issues of conservation and climate change, and its potential impact on everything from food security and bio-diversity to the survival of low lying island nations of the Caribbean.

Fourth, as we have painfully seen in recent years, climate change is taking a toll throughout our region in the form of droughts or a longer and more violent Atlantic hurricane season. Disaster preparedness and emergency response need to play a greater role in how we engage with one another. Several years back, Canada, Mexico and the U.S. agreed to preposition equipment in Panama and earmark resources to be able to respond quickly and efficiently when disaster strikes in Central America and the Caribbean. North America should re-engage and work with UNASUR nations in order to enhance our abilities to respond in a more effective manner.

Fifth, North America needs to do more to support holistic and long-term growth in Central America, particularly in the so-called Northern Triangle nations of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The U.S., under the leadership of Vice-President Biden -- and with the Inter-American Development Bank as an important stakeholder -- has submitted a request to Congress for $1 billion dollars to strengthen their economies and the rule of law.. Free trade agreements can also support the economic development of these three Central American nations.

Finally, North America and many of its trade partners in the region can help build a 21st century international trade rules-based system. The three North American nations along with Chile and Peru are negotiating what will become the gold-standard of free and fair trade agreements, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This should be an incentive for launching an effort across the Hemisphere to jump-start economic growth and bridge economic asymmetries between the haves and the have-nots. It's our common business -- and common interest -- to create greater prosperity for citizens throughout the Americas.

The meeting between President Obama and Raul Castro can be seen as emblematic of a new philosophy governing relations among nations of the Americas, and provides an opportunity to lay the groundwork for the challenges ahead if we seize the moment. We believe that the aftermath of the summit provides North America with a unique opportunity to find a joint and renewed sense of purpose with many willing partners throughout the Americas. Doing so will not only provide North America with a more cohesive approach to issues on which we share common objectives and values but also be a boon to the Hemisphere as a whole.


Mack McLarty is former White House Chief of Staff and Special Envoy to the Americas. Arturo Sarukhan is former Mexican Ambassador to the United States. Michael Kergin is former Canadian Ambassador to the United States and to Cuba.