By the time new President Barack Obama made his first foreign trip in February, 2009, receiving a hero’s welcome on Parliament Hill, Stephen Harper had responded to Mr. Obama’s pledges on climate change by proposing a continental cap-and-trade system.
In the nearly four years since, that plan has faded, as Mr. Obama’s climate agenda stalled. But Mr. Harper’s swift move to match his policy to the President’s arrival underlined the impact a U.S. election has here.
From energy exports to cross-border trade, global security and broader economic concerns, the effects of America’s choice between Mr. Obama and Republican Mitt Romney will be felt in this country. Canadians have told pollsters they’d pick Mr. Obama by a wide margin – but beyond the popularity contest, hard Canadian interests are at stake.
Just as in 2008, a key issue for Canada is energy.
A Romney administration would clearly set out a welcome for Canada’s oil and gas, approving pipelines and showing less interest in regulating greenhouse gases.
Mr. Romney has accused the incumbent of endangering the United States’ energy security when he rejected the extension of an oil pipeline from Alberta, the Keystone XL. Notably, he included Canadian oil and gas in his calculations as he repeatedly stressed the need for North American – rather than just American – energy security.
For Mr. Harper’s government and Alberta’s oil patch, that’s a friendlier reception. Though Mr. Obama’s administration insists it only rejected the Keystone pipeline temporarily – and many believe he will approve it after the election – the refusal sparked a move by Mr. Harper to emphasize energy exports to Asia. There’s little doubt that Mr. Romney would be an easier sell.
“He sees our exports as a plus into the American energy equation. Obama’s not been as clear cut on that,” said Raymond Chrétien, a former Canadian ambassador to Washington and now a partner with law firm Fasken Martineau in Montreal.
U.S. ambassador David Jacobson, Mr. Obama’s envoy to Canada, suggests the campaign rhetoric on Keystone has been overblown, even if Mr. Obama won’t match Mr. Romney in guaranteeing approval. “The President views Canadian energy as critical, critical to the energy security of the United States,” he said.
It’s less clear what impact the election will have on other bilateral issues. In many ways, current Canada-U.S. relations are blessed with few big disputes. But some, including Derek Burney, another former ambassador to the U.S., say they’ve lacked strategic co-operation. Washington dragged its feet on letting Canada into Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, he said, and rejected Keystone. Canada offered to pay for a new bridge to Detroit, but the Obama administration has done little to campaign for its approval in Michigan.
Mr. Jacobson insists that relations have worked well, pointing to things like the Beyond the Border initiative aimed at speeding border trade and traffic. However, he admits nitty-gritty bilateral issues don’t turn on which party wins the White House. “Most of these issues are going to go forward whether it is a Romney administration or an Obama administration,” he said.
But on foreign policy, Canadians will see a difference, Mr. Jacobson suggested.
“Governor Romney, I think, is pretty clearly going to be more aggressive in some regards than the President has been, less willing to reach out to some of our friends and allies,” he said. “We’ve seen what happens when our foreign policy – when the Canadian people are not completely in sync with our foreign policy.”
For many Canadians, that’s a potent reference to the past: George W. Bush’s approach to the world was disliked by many here.
Mr. Romney would expand the military, he’s less firmly committed to withdrawing troops in Afghanistan, and he’s accused Mr. Obama of being weak in opposing Iran’s nuclear program.
But the differences have mostly been on tone, not substance.
Above all, the big issue for Canada is the one that will move Americans: the economy. Exports to the U.S. account for nearly a fifth of Canada’s economy.
Some, like Mr. Burney, believe that Mr. Romney’s election would boost business confidence in the U.S. But others, including the British magazine The Economist, argue that his proposals to increase military spending and cut taxes would dig the U.S. into deeper debt.
Picking the candidate who will better manage the economy will be key on both sides of the border – but only Americans, of course, will vote.