Is there room for a reset of U.S.-Canadian relations in Barack Obama’s second term?
The relationship has been managed on a low boil for the last four years, as Stephen Harper’s government has tried to blunt Buy American measures and convinced the Americans to launch a nuts-and-bolts Beyond the Border initiative to speed cross-border trade and traffic. Most disputes have been wrestled down to minor differences.
But there’s been no grand plan like the Free Trade Agreement of the 1980s, the NAFTA of the 1990s or even the linking of highway systems in the Eisenhower years. A U.S. President focused on a slow economy at home found time for only one bilateral visit to Canada, early in his days in office.
Now the question north of the border is whether Mr. Obama’s re-election opens the door for renewal in Canada-U.S. relations, or just four more years.
Mr. Harper’s first priority will be to renew the campaign to have the Obama Administration approve the Keystone XL pipeline extension to carry Alberta bitumen to Gulf Coast refineries.
Some, like Stephen Blank, an American who is the Fulbright visiting research chair at the University of Ottawa, said he doesn’t believe Mr. Harper will have to push too hard – the President’s refusal, he believes, was about local U.S. politics.
“There’ll be an XL pipeline under Mr. Obama, I don’t think there’s any question,” Mr. Blank said.
Mr. Harper’s natural resources minister, Joe Oliver, said in a CBC Television interview Tuesday night that he thinks that approval for the pipeline will come “sooner rather than later.”
But Mr. Blank said he believes that’s not enough. The United States and Canada must come to grips with their extensive economic integration by planning to build infrastructure together – not just bridges but roads, railways, energy grids, and more, he said. But he’s pessimistic: Politicians on both sides of the border don’t want to admit the importance of those things, he said. “This is a huge issue of North American competitiveness.”
There was one clear election victory for the Canadian government on a bridge: In Michigan, voters rejected a state-wide initiative, Proposition 6, that would have slowed the building of a new Windsor-Detroit bridge. But that’s a bridge that Ottawa will pay for.
The approval of a Keystone XL pipeline could remove an irritant, but Queen’s University political scientists Kim Nossal doubts that it will be the start of a grand new re-boot in Canada-U.S. relations.
There’s little sign Mr. Obama would say any legacy politics in North American matters. Mr. Harper, he said, appears to have settled on the idea that the best it can do with the Obama Administration is manage the relationship, keep disputes from flaring up, and make incremental advances.
“He looks at that thickening border, he tries to move as much as he can in things like the Beyond the Border initiative,” Mr. Nossal said. But he said Mr. Harper will know that any grander-scale initiative to deal with North American integration will never overcome the U.S. obsession with border security.
“It’s the usual stuff of U.S.-Canadian relations, but I don’t think there is any willingness on the part of the Harper government to go very far – and say, ‘Let’s start a new North American initiative,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a re-boot with Obama.”
The other question, Mr. Nossal said, is whether the U.S. is at the top of Mr. Harper’s priorities any more.
Though the U.S. economy is still deeply tied to Canada’s, the prospects for economic growth seem increasingly linked to other places. The fact that Mr. Harper is in India right now while the U.S. picks a president is a ready symbol of how Canada’s foreign focus has changed, to Asia, to China, and to emerging markets.
In 2006, Mr. Harper came to office overtly planning to warm relations with the U.S. When Mr. Obama was first elected, Mr. Harper moved quickly to propose a continental alliance on energy and the environment. But more recently, Mr. Nossal noted, Mr. Harper used the rejection of Keystone XL to advocate for the Northern Gateway pipeline so Canada can ship bitumen to Asia. He has spent energy and political capital developing ties in Asia.
“I think the Harper government is looking elsewhere,” Mr. Nossal said.