A few small steps, not one big plan

This is the new norm in Canada’s relations with the United States

A few small steps, not one big planWhen Stephen Harper meets with Barack Obama and Felipe Calderón at the annual North American leaders’ summit in Guadalajara on Aug. 9-10, it will be the seventh time in six months that he’ll have met the U.S. President at one international confab or another. Once a month ain’t bad, or so a group of White House officials quipped to their Canadian counterparts at a planning meeting ahead of Obama’s first taste of the trilateral get-together. The message: relations are just fine, thanks. When something needs to get done—a binational auto bailout or a trilateral co-operation on the swine flu, the neighbours have worked together hand-in-glove.

In recent years there has been fretting in Ottawa that the trilateral summits instituted under George W. Bush had overshadowed bilateral relations. Canada, the U.S. and Mexico had launched the Security and Prosperity Partnership that brought together hundreds of faceless bureaucrats to work on hundreds of to-do lists of harmonizing regulations and pruning border red tape—a largely behind-closed-doors exercise that also spawned hundreds of conspiracy theories about the coming “continental union” of the three countries. While some of that bureaucratic work may continue, the new U.S. administration seems to be uninterested in grand exercises in North America-building. Officials in all three countries are coming to the conclusion that the SPP was “too rigid,” the to-do list was too long, and the process was not nearly inclusive enough of civil society, nor sufficiently transparent.

“None of them want to repeat the stringent structure of the SPP. They want to be more strategic,” said Maryscott Greenwood, executive director of the Canadian-American Business Council, who attended a planning meeting in Mexico City on July 31 that brought together officials, business leaders and scholars from the three countries. “They like the idea of broad notions of security and prosperity, but I think they are not stuck on working their way through the 300 ideas. They thought there had to be broader engagement with civil society, and they thought business engagement was just a first step,” she added.

Rather than focusing on a grand vision for “North America,” the Guadalajara summit is expected to be tightly focused on a few time-sensitive issues. “Energy, climate change and the environment, and H1N1 preparedness,” is how White House spokesman Mike Hammer summed up the U.S. agenda for Maclean’s. There is reason for urgency on all three fronts. The so-called swine flu is expected to make a vengeful return this fall. The leaders would also like to reach some kind of unified statement on climate change ahead of the UN conference in Copenhagen in December. “They want to talk about a common front about how we are going to approach the carbon discussion,” said Jim Blanchard, former U.S. ambassador to Canada. “If we go to Copenhagen in December and North America doesn’t have its own act together, the rest of the world will say, ‘Why are you here talking to us?’ ”

The North American business community is also pressing the Obama administration to come out with a strong statement in support of free trade at a time when Canada is trying to secure an exemption from the Buy American provisions of the U.S. stimulus package, and the U.S. Congress is considering carbon tariffs as part of pending climate change legislation. Greenwood says the administration has been asked by business leaders to “draw a line in the sand on protectionism with Congress,” and “to clarify that it views free trade as an important element of economic recovery globally.”

While the White House has not indicated what kind of statement Obama will make on trade, Hammer said the economy would be discussed. “The leaders should also have an opportunity to talk about the economy and how we can begin or continue to coordinate to improve job growth and economic growth on all sides of the North American borders,” he told Maclean’s. The White House also expects to discuss with President Calderón how it can further support Mexico’s fight against powerful drug cartels. And Mexico has an issue of its own to raise with Canada: its objection to Ottawa’s recent imposition of visa requirements on Mexican visitors to Canada.

While there may not be much momentum for building “North American” institutions, there will be no shortage of ongoing get-togethers to allow Harper and Obama to keep building their relationship. In keeping with the once-a-month pace, Harper will yet again encounter Obama in September when the leaders of the G20 nations meet in Pittsburgh. (UPDATE: Harper will also visit the White House on Sept. 16 for the second bilateral meeting between him and President Obama.) Greenwood compares such brief-but-frequent diplomacy to Spanish-style dining. “This is like a tapas restaurant,” she said. “They are little things but you’ll get lots of them. And at the end, hopefully, you’ll be full.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.