After the first U.S. presidential debate, the stage has been set for a major showdown Tuesday night. In this first opportunity for a foreign policy debate of the campaign, President Barack Obama has a chance to re-ignite his campaign, seizing on the recent strong debating performance of his vice-president.

Likewise, after initial foreign policy gaffes on the campaign trail, this debate is just as crucial for Mitt Romney. If either candidate wants to take this debate, they would be wise to seize upon, as the foundation for a robust foreign policy, a strategy that is continental.

It's often been said that countries have no permanent friends, only permanent interests. But on many notable occasions, the exception to that rule has been the Canada-U.S.-Mexico relationship. It has also been said that competitiveness is no longer national; it is continental. While my passport is Canadian, I am also a proud North American.

The path to economic prosperity lies in maximizing our continental relationship and working together globally. Interconnections of trade and investment create jobs and prosperity. Frankly, we have no choice but to "go it" together. North America faces many challenges, from which must come a continental focus and continental solutions, in order to be truly competitive in the emerging global economy and to succeed.

Since 9/11, integrated production systems and supply chains within North America have come under enormous pressure from heightened security, not to mention the general erosion of collective transportation and energy infrastructure, continuing regulatory duplication, overlap and inefficiencies, which has hurt the North American economy. Exports from Canada to the U.S. have fallen to 62 per cent of the total from 80 per cent in the past decade.

Thankfully, North American leadership has devoted some attention to these challenges. After the original Beyond the Border Agreement was signed, the Beyond the Border Action Plan was released in December 2011 "to enhance security while thinning the border and expediting trade and travel." The United States-Canada Regulatory Co-operation Council (RCC) was also established to increase regulatory transparency and regulatory co-ordination between the two countries.

However, this is not enough. The rise of emerging markets, especially in Asia, and the critical challenges this presents for North America, demands much more than just a national response by Canada (or the U.S. for that matter). It demands a co-ordinated continental response from North America. The domestic strength of our respective economies will come from government and business working together at a continental level, all the while maintaining our sovereign relationships.

As respected Fulbright professor Stephen Blank has noted, Canada, the U.S. and Mexico are not simply trading partners, exchanging finished products across our respective borders. Quite the opposite. Within North America, firms collaborate in a complex cross-border exchange involving intertwined production, supply and distribution systems. NAFTA simply intensified trends that were already well underway towards the creation of "continental-wide North American production platform."

To date, as Blank has noted, most of the integration North America has achieved since NAFTA has been driven by the "bottom-up" interests of business looking for new ways to grow and compete. Enhancing the resilience of the North American economy, now and in the future, is not going to happen simply through such initiatives as the RCC or Beyond the Border. While admirable and long over due, they are not going to fit the bill in an emerging global economy that is pivoting toward Asia.

The presidential candidates must think beyond mere tinkering and towards a grander, bolder vision of governments and business working together to build a new infrastructure of truly North American highways, pipelines, rails and electricity grids, etc., to best position North America in the face of looming global competition from a transformed Asia this century and beyond.

In 1961, U.S. president John F. Kennedy shared the following in his speech in Canada's Parliament: "geography has made us neighbours, history has made us friends, economics has made us partners, and necessity has made us allies." If giving that speech today, Kennedy would surely add that current global security and economic challenges have made us a family.

The emerging global economy can be seen as a threat or a challenge to the resiliency that is and has been North America. If the presidential candidates choose to see it as a challenge, and they ought to, it underlines the need to push forward in constructing a seamless North American economy of labour mobility, energy security, and efficient movement of goods and services, as the foundation for a prosperous Canada, U.S. and Mexico of the 21st century and beyond.

In this post-recession world that is anything but post-recession, selling this continental strategy as a job creation and prosperity plan, which in fact it is, will no doubt do much for the electoral fortunes of whichever candidate chooses to embrace it. Properly addressed by the political and business leadership of our three countries, it would be inconceivable that this overture to resuscitate our economic position would be snubbed by the electorate. After all, the collective prosperity of citizens on all sides of the border, depends on it.

May the best presidential candidate win.

The following was originally published in the Ottawa Citizen.