With national holiday season upon us on both sides of the border, it is a good time to pause and consider whether Barack Obama has had a positive effect on Canada. Last week, Maclean’s Washington correspondent Luiza Ch.Savage wrote a very thoughtful article arguing “Barack Obama is bad for Canada.” The piece was far more balanced than the title suggests, but it raised some legitimate points about Obama’s economic ambitions with respect to free trade, global warming, and energy. She could have added border security for good measure. At first glance, and based on its national interests, Canada has grounds for worry. Yet polls suggest Canadians like Obama more than they do Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Could the Obama effect and his popularity be making us blind to potential threats to our country’s economy and overall interests?
On the free trade front, it seems the current White House is in line with previous inhabitants, from Reagan to Bush 43. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have moved away from their silly and expedient positions on NAFTA in the Ohio primaries. That said, their party’s rank and file, along with the Democratic majority in Congress, are far more protectionist in nature than Republicans. Trade union influence has always made Democrats cautious about free trade arrangements. But history has taught American presidents and the world that the primal instinct for protectionism can easily transform a serious and prolonged recession into a catastrophic economic depression. That’s why Harper is right to the sound alarm bells on the Buy American provisions for state and municipal stimulus spending. This must continue to be a point of contention and debate because ignoring it comes with too great a risk. Now, the hope is the Obama Administration, with its Clinton-era economic holdovers, will work to avoid this degenerating into a full-scale trade war.
On energy, Canada can be part of the solution as the US moves away from its reliance on (sometimes) belligerent foreign countries. Hydroelectric power should be declared a renewable and environmentally-friendly resource, and the west must get to work on reducing the negative effects of extraction from the oil sands. Demonstrating our capacity to tap into our energy supply potential without causing massive environmental damage is our responsibilty. I am certain Obama’s people want to reduce energy dependance, but they also know it cannot be fully eliminated.
On border security, not much has changed under Obama and we should not be surprised. While the issue of cross-border security has been grossly distorted in the U.S., there remains significant obstacles for an administration that is slowly moving away from Bush policies and hoping to emphasize greater multilateral diplomacy. I believe the US is overstating the risk, but any terrorist attack on their soil would give rise to the same hysteria that led to the hard-line Bush approach. Canada and the U.S. have a mutual interest in border security and time will have to play its part.
One area where the Obama effect can have a positive and near-immediate effect on Canada is diplomacy. Since WWII, Canada has distinguished itself through its diplomacy. We do not start wars—thank God—but we do not shirk from our duty to combat tyranny. We are not pacifists, but we work diligently for peace. Pearson, Trudeau, Mulroney and Chrétien each played an active role on the world stage, and U.S. foreign policy benefited from this. Obama will need Canada to play a more active role. When Bush was around, Harper seemed content to simply mimick U.S. policies. However, since Obama’s arrival, Harper has appeared more energetic and engaged on the diplomatic front.
Both countries have a lot to celebrate over the first week of July. I am sure many Iranians would love to revel in the freedoms Canadians and Americans will salute in the coming days. The Obama effect has made us more concious of the positive role America can play in the world. But remember: the US will always act in its interests and we must do likewise. As America works to restore its standing in the world, we must not fear it. We must instead applaud it. Above all, however, we cannot be mere spectators.