WASHINGTON - President Bush is tending to his country's relationship with Canada and Mexico one last time, trumpeting trade over the "scare tactics" of economic isolation.
Bush joins Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon today in New Orleans for his fourth and final North American Leaders' Summit.
This year's event has the intended twist of giving an economic and symbolic boost to the host city. Almost 32 months after Hurricane Katrina struck, New Orleans is still recovering - with uneven success - from the most brutal natural disaster in US history.
Most of Bush's time will be spent in a hotel and a historic former city hall in the Central Business District, far from the residential areas hit hardest by Katrina. His agenda includes a few events of local flavor, but they are secondary to diplomatic talks.
The gathering is also a send-off of sorts for Bush. Since this trilateral tradition began near his Texas ranch in 2005, he has watched the leadership of Canada and Mexico turn over; now he is the one on the way out, with just nine months left in office.
Despite its lofty name, the two-day summit lacks a defining issue and is not expected to yield any major announcements. It is more like a progress report on how the three countries are integrating - important for commerce and security, but not exactly enticing.
The United States and its two neighbors already have the largest free-trade zone in the world, and an economic relationship that has swelled to nearly $1 trillion a year.
To bolster that cooperation, the countries have made a concerted effort to harmonize standards on everything from food safety to baggage screening to energy efficiency. Bush and his counterparts championed this effort three years ago and keep refining it.
In New Orleans, the leaders will push anew to streamline the rules for all three countries. The areas of focus this time include fuel efficiency standards; crackdowns against counterfeit or pirated goods; long-term plans for repairing roads and bridges; responses to natural disasters and other emergencies near the borders; and coordination on recalls of unsafe products.
"The progress tends to be incremental, and therefore is not widely understood," said Peter DeShazo, a top State Department official for Western Hemisphere affairs during Bush's first term.
The three leaders rarely get into the weedy details. But their presence sends a message that cooperation is vital, said DeShazo, who directs the Americas Program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Blending the regulations of countries with different legal systems is not just a bureaucratic challenge. It is a political one.
Critics contend the "Security and Prosperity Partnership" - the framework for all this coordination among the countries - is conducted with little oversight. It is enough to incite protests among citizens who fear national sovereignty is threatened.
That's true again this year. More than two dozen organizations have put together a coinciding "People's Summit" in New Orleans to raise their concerns.
When such criticism came up last year, Bush dismissed the idea that coordination among the countries is harmful. "Political scare tactics," he called it.