The President and the Prime Minister

On Feb. 19, President Obama will visit Canada in his first official foreign visit, reestablishing a tradition where the U.S. President’s first foreign visit following election is with the neighbor to the north.

The visit will be a short one, and hardly the kind to achieve any significant breakthrough. One can assume talks will revolve around the economy, the respective stimulus packages, energy, trade issues and Canada’s concerns about a potential rising tide of protectionism, and possibly Canada’s participation in Afghanistan. It’s unlikely Omar Khadr will be discussed. Too bad. Whether there will be enough time to discuss border security issues and climate change are also question marks.

Much is made about the divide between the Canadian government’s small ‘c’ conservative ideological stance and Obama, arguably the most progressive and liberal president since JFK. It should be noted, however, that any right of center government in Canada is close to the center of the political spectrum in the U.S. And Obama has gradually been moving to the center himself. There are plenty of similarities. Both governments’ stimulus packages will be amassing huge deficits for years to come. Both nations are pouring large amounts into infrastucture projects, each have tailored tax cuts to the middle class and both are ready to help ailing industries. So it is unlikely the economy will be a source of friction. And Obama’s recent warning against protectionism only helps to reduce any tension.

On Afghanistan, Canada is in a strong position. The so-called Bush clone, Stephen Harper, has steered an independent course by showing flexibility with opposition demands and developing a consensus on the deadline regarding the Kandahar mission. The U.S. can hardly blame us and can only point to our role as a model for other NATO nations who have picked safer havens. If anything, Obama can state categorically that Canada has stepped up to the plate in what he considers the priority conflict. But we know Obama wants to change the American approach to diplomacy and this can be an opportunity for the Canadian government to become more active in brokering peace initiatives and initiating overtures to reduce tensions. In recent years, we have not been as active or shown leadership in areas like the Middle East, China and Russia. The world is better when U.S. and Canadian diplomacy complement each other while acknowledging and defending their respective interests.

Much has been made over the years about the personal relationship between the two leaders. FDR and Mackenzie King got along famously, as did Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan. Mulroney also had a good relationship with George H.W. Bush. We know Trudeau and Carter were friends. Personal friendships can go a long way in helping to reduce tensions. And while Jean Chretien criticized Mulroney’s close ties with U.S. presidents as not being sufficiently distant to protect Canadian interests, he himself had an excellent bond with Bill Clinton. The most belligerent relationship seems to have been between JFK and John Diefenbaker.

My guess is that Harper and Obama will get along, at least for now. They are both cerebral types. They are of the same generation although markedly different in style and personality. The relationship between the two countries, meanwhile, is best summed up by JFK, who said during his lone visit to Ottawa: “Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies. Those whom nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder. What unites us is far greater than what divides us…Our alliance is born not out of fear but of hope.” It sounds a lot like what Obama has been saying for the past two years. The hope is that the Obama will leave Canada knowing full well that the neighbor to the north is indeed the best and most reliable friend.