Taking the Canada-US Partnership to the Next Level

Excerpted from ‘Taking the Canada-US Partnership to the Next Level’ in Policy Options: Canada-US conversations and relations March 2011

The Prime Minister and President Obama may not be ideological soulmates but Obama thinks enough of Harper to carve out time and energy for the endeavour. Harper is also savvy enough to appreciate the wisdom of Brian Mulroney’s precept about the relationship that prime ministers need to forge with presidents:

“This is the most important relationship, the most important responsibility that a prime minister has on his schedule. This is it, the Canada-United States relationship. If you don’t get that right, you’re going to have problems… The relationships (between prime ministers and presidents) are absolutely indispensable. If you don’t have a friendly and constructive personal relationship with the president of the United States, nothing is going to happen.”

Mulroney’s remarks on February 11, delivered in Washington’s National Press Club to celebrate Ronald Reagan’s centenary, should be chiseled into the paneling of the prime minister’s Centre Block office.  Bear them in mind especially when America is at war or in economic distress. Insecurity breeds isolationism and its ugly stepchild, protectionism. In either instance, Canadian interests are at risk whether by direct action or, as is more usually the case, through collateral damage…

Buried within the Washington Declaration was a ‘Second Report to Leaders’ on the twenty joint projects taking place under the Clean Energy Dialogue through working groups on carbon capture and sequestration, electricity grid and research and development.

Born out of President Obama’s day-trip to Ottawa  two years earlier in February 2009, it listed as the “key” accomplishments: “a Memorandum of Understanding to support cooperative R&D to develop materials and manufacturing processes for lightweight, energy efficient vehicles and clean energy production, a cooperative agreement to facilitate collaborative algal biofuels aimed at yielding improved productivity and harvesting methods…as well as work to develop a Clean Energy Research Development and Demonstration Framework.” After two years of “action”, when you defrost the bureaucratese, one wonders “where’s the beef?” Therein lies another of Harper’s challenges – turning the aspirational into actual achievements.

For skeptics, the Clean Energy update is reminiscent of those generated by the now zombified Security and Prosperity Initiative (SPP). Born at the Waco, Texas trilateral in March 2005) with Presidents George W. Bush and Vicente Fox and Prime Minister Paul Martin the SPP promised “new avenues of cooperation that will make our open societies safer and more secure, our businesses more competitive, and our economies more resilient” There were also commitments to improved productivity “through regulatory cooperation” and “efficient movement of goods and people”. Three hundred action items were generated and like Mao’s thousand flowers enjoyed a brief bloom before they withered.

The February 2009 commitment for cooperation on “border management” met a similar fate. Progress was achieved on the security side – the American priority – through, for example, the ‘Shiprider’ program of collaborative policing on the Great Lakes, but the Canadian ask – access –  languished until Harper prodded the president during a “pull-aside” in Toronto during the July G8/20 summits.

Getting a commitment to move “beyond the border” required perseverance and presidential intervention in overcoming stubborn rear-guard resistance from the Department of Homeland Security, who see their iron rice bowl threatened. Another unhappy casualty of 9/11 was the faciliatory attitude that took root after the Free Trade Agreement. Partly it was self-interest. For the Treasury officials who managed the border, more traffic meant more revenue.

After 9/11, authority passed from Treasury officials to Homeland Security. For them it is all about compliance and minimizing risk. For them, less traffic means less risk. The once welcoming screen door has been replaced with storm windows and increasing layers of weather-stripping….

Obama must convince Congress that Canadians can be trusted and that including us in the American security blanket serves their national security and economic interests. Differentiating between the northern and southern borders, while avoiding a re-opening of the immigration debate will take skill and finesse. Just as we took a wac-a-mole approach to recurring mythology about the 9/11 terrorists coming in from Canada, so we need to take a similar approach to the pronouncements on the perils of the northern border from Senator Joe Lieberman and others.

There should also be eventual provision for Mexico. Demography is destiny and the American mosaic is changing. We need to be ahead of this trend by reaching out to Mexico. There are now more Americans with Latino roots than Canadians.

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From Steven Chase ‘Sorry, amigo: WikiLeaks shows Canada prefers meeting U.S. without Mexico’ Globe and Mail, March 2, 2011

A 2009 briefing for U.S. President Barack Obama before the “Three Amigos” talks in Guadalajara, Mexico, with Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon cautioned the U.S. leader about Canadian discomfort with discussions that include Mexico, a cable released by WikiLeaks shows.“Canada remains at times concerned that trilateralism comes at the expense of its bilateral relationship with the United States,” the U.S. embassy in Mexico wrote.The U.S. diplomat writing the memo hastened to add that Canada has assured the Americans “it does value” summits between North American leaders. Recent perimeter security border talks launched between Canada and the U.S. are a perfect illustration of Ottawa’s wish to keep Mexico out of high-priority negotiations. Ottawa and Washington, without Mexico City, embarked on bilateral discussions in January that would deepen relations to protect the continent from terrorism but ease two-way trade.

It’s a dramatic shift from the previous three-way approach to the matter: the Security and Prosperity Partnership that was launched in 2005 between all NAFTA partners but later abandoned. In a cabinet document obtained by The Globe and Mail last December, the Harper government was warned to expect a backlash from Mexico over the new border talks. Officials cautioned that Mexico “may raise concerns about not being included in the vision.” Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat, said Canada is frustrated when Mexico is included in meetings with the Americans because its drug war and border troubles tend to dominate discussion – relegating Ottawa’s priorities to the back seat. “The Mexican issues, when Mexico is in the room, become transcendent because in grand strategy terms they are more important: drugs, smuggling, guns and mayhem – the idea of an incipient failed state,” Mr. Robertson said.“You end up with basically two bilateral discussions [with the U.S.], but ours becomes much shorter.” He said Mexico commands significant attention in the American mind in part because of mass migration to the United States. “There are now more Americans of Latino descent in America then there are Canadians, period,” he said. Mr. Robertson, however, feels it’s a strategic mistake for Canada to leave Mexico out of discussions with the Americans about greater continental co-operation.

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