As Enduring America reported yesterday, Pres. Obama will be visiting Ottawa on 19 February. The visit is significant for several reasons beyond that it will be Obama’s first foreign trip since taking office. In making this journey, Obama restores a tradition going back to at least Ronald Reagan whereby the new American president makes his first foreign visit to his northern neighbour (Here’s a Canadian news story about Reagan’s visit, which occurred less than a month before he was shot). Pres. Bush ended this pattern when, to the chagrin of Ottawa, he went to Mexico shortly after taking power.
Typically, when it comes to Canadian-American relations, the significance is mainly for Obama’s Canadian hosts. There is some importance for the new administration, however. Early in his term, Obama will want to look presidential on his first foreign visit through media coverage back home and around the world. The President will have to do this without the trappings of an official state visit since his sojourn will be for private meetings with Canadian officials. He will also be seeking Canadian support for Washington’s strategy in Afghanistan, a potentially tough sell since Canadian participation is widely unpopular among the general public and several of the opposition parties. Over one hundred Canadian soldiers have been killed in action, a higher proportion in relation to national population than that of the United States. The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already committed itself to withdrawing Canadian troops from Afghanistan in 2011.
For Canada, the only foreign relationship that really matters is with Washington. Roughly 90% of Canadian trade goes to its southern neighbour and, until very recently, Canada was the United States’ largest trading partner (it’s now second after China). The concern in Ottawa is with talk of greater American protectionism, traditionally associated with the Democrats.
Here’s where it gets complicated. For the first time since possibly the 1930s, a U.S. president is in power who is arguably to the left of the Canadian prime minister. Stephen Harper is not a traditional Canadian Conservative. He is an ideologue who emerged out of a breakaway right-wing party that eventually seized control of Canada’s long-running Tory party. Philosophically, Harper was much more at home with Pres. Bush than the new president, mimicking the foreign policy of his fellow traveller.
Complicating the picture even more is that a Harper official caused consternation and damage to Obama’s chances for the Democratic nomination back in February 2008. Ian Brodie, Harper’s chief of staff, leaked to the Canadian media that Austan Goolsbee, an Obama economic advisor, had privately assured a Canadian diplomat that Ottawa had nothing to worry about when it came to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) despite Obama’s public pronouncements in rust-belt states that he would seek to change the treaty. Harper was forced to apologize for the embarrassing leak and Canadian officials scrambled to patch things up with the Obama campaign. Whether enmity still exists may emerge on 19 February.
Then there’s the Igantieff factor but that will be the subject of a future post …