To date, Stephen Harper has been an astute manager of Canada-U.S. relations.
He's struck the right balance. A case in point is his two-pronged strategy on trade. The American market is in bad shape. It may never be what it once was. It makes sense therefore to diversify trade, as the Conservatives are now trying to do. It is also a given that, despite any decline, the U.S. will remain Canada's largest trading partner. It makes sense therefore for the Prime Minister to secure that market as best he can. He will, therefore, sign the new Beyond the Border agreement, or perimeter accord, with President Barack Obama on Wednesday.
This comes after Washington's pushback on the Keystone XL pipeline and its moves to invoke Buy America measures in its economic stimulus programs. In each case, Mr. Harper has had harsh words for the administration. That works politically because, again, it's the balanced approach. History shows that Canadians like prime ministers who take on the Americans half the time and support them half the time.
For Mr. Harper, American relations have not been an easy challenge. In fellow conservative George W. Bush, he had to deal with a president Canadians reviled. He managed not to get poisoned. In Mr. Obama, he has a president from the liberal side whose Canadian popularity level has been extraordinary. In this relationship as well, Mr. Harper has impressively held his own.
The Canadian view of Mr. Obama will make it easier for the PM to sell tomorrow's package, one that will provide better border access in exchange for the Americans getting more capacity for tracking our citizenry.
The devil, if there is one, will be in the details. The real concern may not be so much this particular accord, but the overall direction Ottawa is taking, namely its increasing integration into the security complex of a country in a state of never-ending post-9/11 paranoia.
Right-leaning governments typically see threats everywhere, their excesses resulting in Iraqs, Vietnams (under Democrats) and military and security spending that ravages balanced budgets.
Our government risks being victimized by this thinking. Despite the dwindling al-Qaeda threat, it is reinstituting anti-terror measures, sunsetted after 9/11, that allow police to arrest suspects without a warrant. The Conservatives' harsh law-and-order measures, their big spending on the armed forces, the jail-building spree and now the security accord lead one to wonder about overreaction. Not to be forgotten are other excesses such as Guantanamo, Maher Arar, Omar Khadr, rendition. Given the meshing of security systems in the new agreement, one wonders what freedoms might be lost in the event of another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. We've heard of fortress North America. How about padlocked North America?
What a distance this country has travelled since Pierre Trudeau's era. Back then, it was left-wing nationalism that was the concern. Now it's a nationalism of the right. We see it brewing not just in terms of the glamorization of the military and the law-and-order regime, but in many other respects –moral certitude on foreign policy, information control obsession, anti-intellectualism, less tolerance for multiculturalism, disrespect for democracy, demagogic putdowns of opponents, "Harper government" nomenclature.
In many respects, we have what might be described as our very own Republican Party at the helm in Canada. Public opinion prevents it from going as far in social areas as the GOP. But on war, on the security file, on trade and in many other policy domains, the similarities are apparent.
It is due to Mr. Harper's skills in managing bilateral relations that there's not much backlash. There's also the fact that Canadians have changed. With age, they've become more secure about their independence.
So, while there may be legitimate reasons for concern over becoming too entangled in the American security vortex, there won't be much opposition to the accord the President and the Prime Minister sign.