Harper & Obama: A new era of co-operation
'Threats to the United States are threats to Canada,' Harper says after meeting with U.S. President and agreeing to work together on green technology
OTTAWA — Barack Obama and Stephen Harper reset Canada-U.S. relations in three hours of meetings Friday, bending over backwards to dispel tension from the George W. Bush era and pledging to co-operate at the border and around the world.
Mr. Obama used a visit to a close neighbour to send a message that the U.S. wants to work in concert with allies – jumping in at a news conference to say he hadn't pressed for Canadian troops to stay in Afghanistan past 2011, and pledging to consult closely with Ottawa on strategy.
And more than ever, Mr. Harper, now dealing with a president who is popular in Canada, offered to do public business in close touch with the United States. He made a direct-to-Americans, we've-got-your-back pledge that Canada considers any security threat to the U.S. a threat to itself.
The 44th U.S. President arrived on snowy Parliament Hill to give a sunny wave to the thrilled crowd – urging Mr. Harper to join in – and stopped downtown to buy a BeaverTail treat six hours later on his way back to Air Force One.
In between, Mr. Obama, clearly well-briefed on Canadian relations, hit the key notes: He spoke out against protectionism and in favour of co-ordinating auto-industry bailouts, said he's committed to ensuring trade flows smoothly across the border, and even declared, “I love this country.” The two leaders also announced the launch of a “Clean Energy Dialogue” to co-operate on developing technology to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, although it fell short of launching talks for the broad North American climate and energy pact Mr. Harper has proposed.
“I came to Canada on my first trip as president to underscore the closeness and importance of the relationship between our two nations, and to reaffirm the commitment of the United States to work with friends and partners to meet the common challenges of our times,” Mr. Obama said at the opening of a four-question news conference that stretched to 40 minutes.
“As neighbours, we are so closely linked that sometimes we may have a tendency to take our relationship for granted.”
Mr. Harper closed with his own suggestion that the two can do business together, on a two-way street.
“As we all know, one of President Obama's big missions is to continue world leadership by the United States of America but in a way that is more collaborative,” he said. “And I'm convinced that by working with our country he will have no greater opportunity than to demonstrate exactly how that model can operate over the next four years.”
One potential sticking point was brushed aside by the U.S. President, who intervened to answer a question posed to Mr. Harper, about whether he would reconsider Canada's decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2011.
“I certainly did not press the Prime Minister on any additional commitments beyond the ones that have already been made,” he said, adding he only complimented Canada on its troops there, and the 108 who have fallen.
“There has been extraordinary effort there and we just wanted to make sure that we were saying thank you.”
Mr. Harper, however, dodged a direct answer on extending the mission, saying the principal goal is to train the Afghan army to take over.
With recession ravaging the U.S. and deepening around the world, the two leaders expressed joint commitment to global stimulus.
Mr. Obama, knowing the audience, not only cautioned against protectionism in a recession, but played down his desire to re-jig the North American Free Trade Agreement, reassuring “it can be done in a way that is not disruptive” to trade.
But it was on cross-border trade flows that the two leaders sent key signals.
Mr. Obama's Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, has ordered a review of security at the Canada-U.S. border – heightening Canadian concerns that U.S. security measures are clogging the flow of goods across the border.
Mr. Harper looked past Ottawa reporters to send a message to Americans: “Threats to the United States are threats to Canada.…”
“We as Canadians have every incentive to be as co-operative and alarmed about the threats that exist to the North American continent in the modern age as do the government and people of the United States. And that's the approach with which we treat the border.”
Mr. Obama responded with a signal that may have impact with his own officials, stressing the need to invest in “easing bottlenecks” and balance security concerns with an “open border.”
“We have no doubt about Canada's commitment to security in the United States as well as Canada,” he said.
On the environment, however, Mr. Obama stepped cautiously around Mr. Harper's calls for a broad, joint pact on greenhouse-gas emissions and energy. The two leaders announced a Clean Energy Dialogue, but it had a limited focus on sharing technology for things like capturing and storing carbon emissions – falling far short of launching a drive to a broad North American system for regulating emissions.
Mr. Obama said the U.S. has to first work out its own system at home, leaving Mr. Harper to suggest Canada might try to join when that's done.
“We'll be looking ourselves for our own sake at opportunities for harmonization to make our policies as effective as they can [be],” he said.
The important intangibles of the relationship – whether the two struck a bond – remain, of course, difficult to judge from outside.
Mr. Harper's communications director, Kory Teneycke, pointed out that the scheduled 10-minute, no-aides chat between the two leaders stretched to 33 minutes, calling it a “a nice way to start” the relationship.
However, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, who had his own 25-minute chat with Mr. Obama, noted there was little solid advance.
“I don't feel from what I heard that anything very substantial or substantive was agreed today,” he said in a CBC interview.
Obama's élan, and trumped up 'clean energy dialogue'JEFFREY SIMPSON
Globe and Mail
February 20, 2009
The U.S. administration is too new and Canada too internally divided for the two countries now to tackle together, and seriously, greenhouse-gas emissions.
Yesterday, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a “clean energy dialogue.” It was an announcement with much less than met the eye. And it was certainly miles from an energy and climate-change pact that had been floated by Mr. Harper in the weeks before Mr. Obama's visit.
With a U.S. president so popular in Canada and displaying such an astonishingly polished understanding of Canadian files, there were no areas of discord to mar such a happy day – but nothing important to announce, either. Hence the trumped up virtues of the “clean energy dialogue.”
Both countries are investing in clean technologies. Both are pouring money into research about carbon sequestration, a process of burying carbon rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.
That work and research was going to continue, “dialogue” or not. Exchanging information about how things, technologically speaking, are going is no bad thing. It's just not a substitute for serious policy. Indeed, the Obama stimulus package had much more in it for boosting investments in clean energy technology than the Harper budget.
What really will count in curtailing emissions was not mentioned yesterday, because the Obama team is not ready with its proposals: putting a price on carbon and imposing stiff new emissions on vehicles.
When those proposals are made public, Ontario will have to swallow hard over new emission regulations for cars, and the edifice of Alberta's climate-change policies will collapse. Those inevitabilities are coming soon, but not right now.
A carbon price will arrive through a cap-and-trade system of the kind that Mr. Obama has promised but that must be laboriously negotiated with Congress and the states. Canada will follow along, trying to join the system, just as Canada will eventually take its cue from the U.S. over vehicle emissions. Whether the Mexicans, with their very different standard of living, will participate in what emerges remains unknown.
Perhaps to flatter the President, Mr. Harper invented a most extraordinary justification for Canada's record as the country whose emissions have grown the fastest among advanced industrialized countries.
It was hard, Mr. Harper said yesterday, to make progress in Canada when no willing partner existed in the United States. It turns out by this twisting of history that Canada's terrible record was the fault of Mr. Obama's predecessor, George Bush. Hello?
Emissions actually grew faster in Canada than in the U.S. under Mr. Bush. Canada signed and ratified the Kyoto Protocol on climate change; the U.S. did not but still had a slightly better record than Canada.
U.S. states, not Canadian provinces, started banding together to form interstate carbon-trading systems, which some provinces then joined. California, then other states, created tougher vehicle-emissions standards.
The Harper government never once tried to reach a Canadian consensus on reducing emissions. The reduction target the government eventually set – a 20-per-cent drop in emissions by 2020 from 2006 levels – is not considered attainable by any Canadian experts who have studied the policies the Harper government has proposed.
Canadians continue to fool themselves and to try to fool the world over climate change. To suggest that Canada's failure was because the Americans were an unwilling partner is historical revisionism of a brazen kind.
Mr. Obama must have understood the revisionism, but he certainly was not going to underscore it, for yesterday belonged to him in Canada. He displayed not only his customary élan but showed – in a way that was hard to recall from any U.S. president, especially one so new on the job – a knowledge of bilateral files and facts that made it appear he had been dealing with Canada for decades.
It helps in Washington that people in the administration and the beau monde know that the occupant of the White House is favourably inclined toward a particular country.
Coming to Canada first, saying so many well-honed things about Canada, mentioning that his brother-in-law is Canadian, and showing sensitivity to the feelings of the smaller country in the relationship bodes very well indeed.
Obama edginess in OttawaRICK SALUTIN
Globe and Mail
February 20, 2009
Stephen Harper, along with the security legions, got a discomfited look on his face when Barack Obama asked if they could step outside to wave to the crowd yesterday after arriving on Parliament Hill. Oh no, he seemed to fret. I don't want it to end this way: taking a bullet for the big-spending liberal. On the other hand, it's his normal expression.
But Barack Obama makes many people edgy, including some on the left, where he's supposed to be. Tom Walkom in the Toronto Star: “He is not God. The best thing … is that he's not George W. Bush.” Alexander Cockburn of Counterpunch: “There's always something cloudy about Obama, just when I've almost persuaded myself to like the guy.” That includes me.
He eludes easy analysis. I've decided that's because his life and experience are so different from most public figures, to whom we have our responses ready. We know he's different because of his book, Dreams from My Father, on his life till about 30. Anyone who read it 15 years ago would have thought: No chance he's planning to run for office. From it, we learn not just the unusual things he did but the unusual ways he processed them.
When his mother took him to a hospital for stitches in Indonesia, she seemed to fear “her child's life might slip away when she wasn't looking, that everyone around her would be too busy trying to survive to notice.” When he worked for a corporate consulting firm: “Like a spy behind enemy lines, I arrived every day at my mid-Manhattan office.” Recently, speaking of Canadian health care – seen as too radical in the U.S. – he said: “When I drive through Toronto, it doesn't look like a bunch of Maoists.” Hmm. He may not be a leftist, but he seems to know some.
His community organizing in Chicago centred on shuttered factories. That's the subtext when he talks to Stephen Harper about protectionism. Stephen read up on it in Fraser Institute publications, and Barack tried to save jobs in dying neighbourhoods: “Men and women who smoked a lot and didn't watch their weight … drove late-model cars from Detroit and ate at Red Lobster on special occasions.” He sat at kitchen tables and talked to them about their lives and ideas. He organized meetings in church halls when almost no one came and the odd soul wandered in to ask where the bingo was. Occasionally, he saw “what every organizer dreamed about – someone with untapped talent … excited by the idea of a public life, eager to learn.”
At the Republican convention, Sarah Palin sneered that community organizers sound like small-town mayors without the responsibility. Everyone hee-hawed. But he found “there was always a community there if you dug deep enough … there was poetry as well.”
When he looks around his cabinet table, he will see no one with that kind of experience. He has been in worlds they are clueless about.
It isn't your average presidential CV, and the discomfort comes from not knowing how it will play out with the guy as president. He has what I think of as the Bob White look: I'm already so far ahead of anything I could have expected that I can't not feel good. Compare that to the Al Gore look: No matter what happens, the most I can ever do is meet expectations.
Yet, it's also very primitive. Imagine Barack Obama waking up yesterday. Already, for hours, thousands have been astir, focused on his day, making his breakfast, welding manhole covers shut in Ottawa etc. It dwarfs the Roman imperial cult. He likes to talk about teachable moments, but what's teachable about this hubbub? It's so undemocratic, so uncommunity organizing. It isn't far from the world of Russian peasants who thought: If only the czar knew, he'd fix everything. The fact that, in the Obama case, he may be the only one at that cabinet table who would fix it, makes the primitiveness even more conspicuous.
Obama and Harper forge common frontMitch Potter
Washington Bureau Chief
Ottawa Bureau Chief
The Toronto Star
Feb 20, 2009
U.S. president turns on the charm, heralding a new era of friendly ties with Canada
OTTAWA–Barack Obama swept aside eight years of jangled Canadian nerves and cross-border tensions yesterday, singling out his northern neighbour as the first choice for a new American partnership with the world.
In a lightning visit designed to turn a fresh page in Canada-U.S. relations and tamp down trade worries, Obama made all the right sounds, including a declaration that "I love this country and think that we could not have a better friend and ally."
It was consummate Obama – a charm offensive the likes of which Ottawa has seldom, if ever, seen. And it was reciprocated, from the rock-star welcome for his motorcade to the thrilled cheers of those who witnessed the president's unscheduled hunt for souvenirs in the capital's ByWard Market.
The day was a triumph, too, for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who found his level with Obama in an expansive question-and-answer session with journalists, the only unscripted moment of a carefully scheduled day.
Despite big differences in philosophy and style, Obama and Harper presented a common front on issues as varied as the war in Afghanistan, reversing the recession and pushing back the hot-button issue of trade protectionism.
Together, they announced a "clean energy dialogue" aimed at finding technological answers to the twin environmental dilemmas of Alberta oil sands and American coal.
Obama called the development of clean energy "one of the most pressing challenges of our time" but also conceded there were no "silver bullets."
But the agreement, which won cautious praise as a good first step, was hardly the centrepiece of day intended as a symbolic break with the Bush era.
Instead, tone triumphed over substance yesterday as Obama used the first foreign trip of his presidency to broadcast to Canada and the world his clear intention to "work with friends and partners to meet the common challenges of our time.
"The United States is once again ready to lead, but strong leadership depends on strong alliances and strong alliances depend on constant renewal. ... That's the work that we've begun here today," Obama told a Parliament Hill news conference.
He pledged to do "everything that I can" to make sure Canada-U.S. relations become ever stronger in the coming years.
Obama then told the media gathered in the Centre Block's Reading Room – and a continent-wide television audience – that he was "a little biased,'' because of his family and staff ties to Canada. "I love this country,'' he said.
Harper, aware of Obama's popularity among Canadians, then jumped on-board, declaring that no two nations are "closer friends."
It was all that Harper's Conservatives could have hoped for – in image and substance, perhaps more, and chance to renew ties left frayed by eight years of George W. Bush.
Between the lines of their pledges to expand trade in the years to come, there remains a question of whether the NAFTA pact might eventually be reopened. Obama spoke of rolling side agreements on environmental and labour standards into the overall package; Harper suggested such a move risked "unravelling" the entire agreement.
On Afghanistan, both chose their words with extreme care, mindful of the political minefield, with Canada approaching a troop withdrawal in 2011 even as Obama is sending 17,000 fresh American troops. Their comments left the picture unchanged.
The president reassured Harper that he sought to boost trade, not stifle it, and that he hoped to streamline a clogged border that has been a chronic and costly irritant to Canadian travellers and shippers alike.
Harper used the day to deliver his own message to the president – and a U.S. audience – on the idea that Canada is somehow a safe haven for terrorists.
"The view of this government is unequivocal: threats to the United States are threats to Canada," Harper said. "And that's the approach with which we treat the border."
Harper blamed his government's climate change record on the previous Bush administration.
"Canada has had great difficulty developing an effective regulatory regime alone in the context of an integrated continental economy. It's very hard to have a tough regulatory system here when we are competing with an unregulated economy south of the border," Harper said.
Obama and Harper met one-on-one for 33 minutes, stretching far past the 10 minutes scheduled for their private meeting. Harper aide Kory Teneycke later said the meeting was a good signal about the fledgling relationship between the two men.
Obama's highly anticipated visit officially got underway at 10.25 a.m. when Air Force One touched down at Ottawa International Airport, where he was greeted by Governor General Michaëlle Jean.
The two appeared to hit it off, chatting and smiling as Obama moved down the line of dignitaries, which included Michael Wilson, Canada's ambassador to the United States and past a line of Mounties standing at attention.
As Obama's motorcade sped downtown, he saw first-hand how the nation's capital embraced their moment of Obamamania, however brief.
The giddy display saw clusters of cheering bystanders crane for a glimpse of the passing motorcade, one woman holding aloft a red paper heart, another toting a sign that said, `Yes we Canada.'
The crowds grew thicker as Obama's motorcade approached Parliament, where a crowd of about 2,500 people included some demonstrators – not against Obama, but rather, in support of the progressive change on which he campaigned. One banner reading "Climate Emergency" said it all.
The much-anticipated photo-op with the two leaders almost never happened. For a few seconds, Harper seemed satisfied to shake hands with the president and pull him inside Parliament.
Only when Obama insisted on extending a wave to the waiting crowd did the pair step back into the cold for their historic photos.
A radio sound bite later confirmed the sequence, with Obama saying to Harper, "Do you mind if we go out there and take a quick wave at some of the people there?"
A White House aide, speaking on background to the Toronto Star, proclaimed the Obama visit "tremendously successful. We are leaving having achieved everything we set out to accomplish."
Harper and Obama, the aide said, found a connection based on their mutual ability to sort through policy detail. "Even on points where there wasn't total agreement, there was respect for the ability to talk policy at a very detailed level. Not every leader can do that. And they saw in each other a capability they like."
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, who was among the senior officials who lunched with Obama and Harper, told the Star that the visit will help kickstart action on cross-border files.
"I felt quite honestly I was in front of two pragmatic leaders who wanted results," Cannon said.
Obama, who has a brother-in-law in Burlington, Ont., ended the news conference by declaring he's looking forward to coming back to Canada, "as soon as it warms up."
Asked later whether the president has any specific plans for a return visit, a White House aide said nothing firm yet.
With files from Tonda MacCharlesPosted by Arthur Caldicott on 20 Feb 2009