Canada, Obama, and the G20

Whether it is energy, Afghanistan, global warming, fiscal stimulus, or auto bailouts, it seems the Canadian government is constantly scrambling to adjust to the policy initiatives of Barack Obama and his administration. While Obama is unquestionably leading, we seem to be following.

On oil, Obama may be preaching energy independence and recognizing Canada as a friendly supplier, but he is no fan of Alberta’s so-called “dirty oil” from the tar sands. So Canada is now looking into reducing carbon emissions from the sands through technological means. Obama has also acknowledged our role and contribution in Afghanistan, and he is aware of Canada’s 2011 deadline for withdrawal. Yet, just last week, he announced a new strategy calling on NATO to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” al Qaeda, even though he tacitly acknowledged Harper’s suggestion that a clear victory against insurgents is increasingly doubtful. Harper and his minority government can’t easily reverse course on Afghanistan, but Obama’s new plan has made it so there is no way we can walk away from an active military role without consequence. Over the weekend, Obama announced he would host a 20-country forum, where Canada, along with big polluters like China and India, has been invited to discuss how to fight climate change at a post-Kyoto summit scheduled later this year. There is no way the Harper government will be able to keep its lukewarm environmental policy intact nor will it be able escape trying to sound green when that forum occurs. Finally, on stimulus and bailouts, it is hard to see where we differ. The only difference is that Obama is doing what was in his program, while the Canadian government seems to be constantly adjusting its own policies to follow Obama’s lead.

Canada’s Conservative government is beginning to pay the political price for its copycat routine, as recent poll numbers put Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff ahead of Harper in popularity. Respected journalists across Canada, like Maclean’s Andrew Coyne, have derided the governing Tories as devoid of principles and criticized them for delivering a Liberal-style budget and policies. This may explain why the Liberals have managed to support the government without paying any noticeable political price. Harper, by contrast, is in a position where he must defend higher spending, record deficits, and bailouts similar to what Obama is doing in the United States. It seems that, when faced with the choice between the “real thing” and a leader who is out of sync with his purported principles, Canadians prefer the ideologically authentic politician. This does not mean Harper is mishandling the economic crisis or running an incompetent government. Rather, it shows Canadians prefer a leader governing from conviction as opposed to one who adjusts to the proverbial political winds. (It remains to be seen, of course, whether Mr. Ignatieff is in fact the real thing.)

Personally, I have no trouble with a government doing what is right and useful in a given circumstance, even if it seems to be in a reactive mode or has set aside some of its political program. It is called pragmatism and realism. That said, the Harper government should seize the opportunity to reset and restart on the eve of the G20 summit. He should sing our praises to the world—using the G20 summit for this purpose would be a ideal opportunity. A recent article in Newsweek by respected columnist and CNN host Fareed Zakaria lauding Canada’s banking system as the most secure of the G8 countries, showing how well we have fared on energy issues compared to the US, and celebrating our universal healthcare insurance is a case in point. We know that Canada has over the years led in areas where our neighbour to the south has lagged behind. Prime Minister Harper has taken to the US media in recent days to state our case, but we must say and do more. As nations welcome the arrival of a new US President to this world forum, one who is open to a multilateral approach and is engaging in areas that his immediate predecessor neglected, Harper should seize this moment as an opportunity to reclaim a certain role for our country where we do more than follow the Obama agenda. We can actually complement and, in some cases, go beyond White House policy. Reclaiming our leadership in world diplomacy—the hallmark of Canada’s profile in the post-WWII world—would be a signal that Canada is shifting away from the Bush years and is prepared to be a leader and a broker on issues affecting the future of this planet. At the end of the day, there is nothing to be ashamed of in following the Obama agenda if it coincides with our national interests. But maybe, just maybe, we can once again stand out as an example to the world. The G20 meeting could be a good start.

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