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The Globe and Mail

Border deal built on Harper and Obama's friendship

Prime Minister Stephen Harper listens as U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the media following a meeting at the White House on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011, in Washington.


Geopolitics is all about states protecting and advancing their interests. But it's also about how politicians get along with one another. The "Beyond the Border" accord has a lot to do with how Stephen Harper and Barack Obama get along.

And it is why this Conservative Prime Minister hopes his Democratic friend gets re-elected president.

Tony Blair confessed in his memoirs that multilateral conferences and foreign visits were the things he enjoyed least about being Britain's prime minister. Hard on the sleep schedule and worse for the digestion.

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But in their 11 official meetings – not to mention numerous phone calls and informal exchanges on the edges of summits – the Canadian Prime Minister and the American President have gotten to like each other.

It may seem a strange match: a former community organizer from Chicago and a former conservative activist from Calgary.

But Mr. Obama has told American reporters that he considers Mr. Harper one of the ablest leaders he has met. Beyond that, the two men have children around the same age. They are both policy wonks and sports buffs.

And Mr. Obama remains extremely popular in Canada, making it possible for Mr. Harper to negotiate deals with the Americans that could never have been contemplated when George W. Bush was in the Oval Office.

During one meeting, the Prime Minister told the President: "We should do something together." Mr. Obama is committed to doubling exports during his term in office. Why not start by improving trade with your closest partner, Mr. Harper proposed. In exchange, the Prime Minister agreed to negotiate a continental security perimeter.

That conversation led to last February's launch of the Beyond the Border talks, and those talks led to Wednesday's unveiling. Over those nine months, external shocks repeatedly threatened to scuttle the whole thing.

The Buy American provisions in a proposed new stimulus bill caught the Canadians flat-footed. A heads-up would have been nice, officials fumed.

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Then came news of a new entry fee for Canadians travelling to the United States, even as the negotiating teams were looking for ways to eliminate fees.

Worst of all, Mr. Obama punted a decision on the controversial Keystone oil pipeline until after the election, rather than anger his liberal base, even though Mr. Harper had lobbied hard for its approval.

But the Americans quietly smoothed some of the Harper government's anger by offering to support Canada's participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership, a hugely important set of negotiations among Pacific nations that this country has thus far been frozen out of because it refuses to put dairy and poultry subsidies on the table.

Throughout the talks, members of the negotiating teams say they were told to tune out the noise. The Prime Minister was determined not to derail the talks by linking current irritants to more fundamental issues.

Now that the deal is done, the question is how and whether it gets implemented. Though neither Congress nor Parliament needs to ratify these agreements, which in the end are largely administrative, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird puts the implementation cost at about $200-million annually, and both legislatures will need to appropriate funds.

Mr. Obama will be distracted over the coming year, as he fights for re-election. If he loses that election, a Republican president may have other, conflicting, priorities.

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Prime Minister Harper and President Gingrich. The mind reels.

Nonetheless, if both countries stick to it, this agreement will produce a more secure border with freer trade, and with less useless duplication in setting product and safety standards.

Geopolitically, such an agreement is in both countries' interest. But it helps that the two men call each other Stephen and Barack.

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