49th Parallel: What's the Big Idea?

  • Share
  • Read Later
When President George W. Bush held his first official tête-à-tête with then Prime Minister Paul Martin, in the Mexican city of Monterrey in January 2004, he called Martin a "straightforward fellow." Two years later, Bush used the same phrase to describe Stephen Harper at their get-acquainted chat in Cancún, Mexico. Awkward coincidence? Maybe, but the U.S. President evidently regards straightforwardness as the highest praise he can bestow on his counterparts--at least until he decides it no longer fits the bill.

That's what happened to the Martin government. Gratuitous insults from the Liberal backbench, the unexpected policy change on missile defense, and Martin's "Blame America" tirades during the election left the Bush White House convinced that Canada's jovial, well-meaning leader was as untrustworthy as his predecessor, Jean Chrétien. Harper, on the other hand, has based his entire approach to Washington on the proposition that that won't happen on his watch. "What's important in dealing with Americans is the absence of surprise," says Derek Burney, former chief of staff to ex-PM Brian Mulroney. "The last government never really focused on Canadian foreign policy, so you kept getting these incidents. This one won't make that mistake."

But message control isn't a policy. Last week's three-way Cancún summit, hosted by Mexican President Vicente Fox, made clear that if Harper really wants to put distance between himself and his predecessors, he still has work to do. His tough rhetoric on the disputes dividing Ottawa and Washington sounds similar to the Liberals' line. Speaking at the closing press conference about the softwood-lumber wrangle, he warned that Canada will use its "legal options" if it can't get the U.S. to release duties impounded from Canadian lumber exporters. And, he added darkly, Canada is "running out of time" in its efforts to forestall the U.S. scheme to require Canadians (and Americans) to show passports before crossing the border by land, starting Jan. 1, 2008.

Harper's vision of North America is also remarkably similar to Martin's. After posing with Bush and Fox near the weathered steps of the Kukulcan temple, built by the Mayans at Chichén Itzá more than 1,000 years ago, the PM threw his support behind the Security and Prosperity Partnership approved by the three countries a year ago as a step toward managing the integrated North American economy. Said Harper in his best policy-wonk style: "We have got to think continentally."

The policy convergence between Harper's Tories and Martin's Liberals shouldn't surprise anyone. Unless you adhere to the philosophical wing that believes the increasing integration of North America can be reversed, the only option is to figure out how to manage interdependent economies that have begun to strain the continent's infrastructure. The real question is how far to push the pace of change--and here Harper is surprisingly, and uncharacteristically, modest. He noted with approval that officials of all three nations have been instructed to develop a cooperative approach to crisis management (including preparation for a possible bird-flu pandemic), collaborate on clean-energy programs and improve coordination on border security. But he also made clear that he wasn't going to rush into the ambitious agenda favored by some Canadian business leaders and academics toward establishing a common tariff and security zone. Instead, he was content to say of the U.S. President, "I believe he understands our issues."

Government insiders say Harper plans to concentrate on a few cross-border items--such as improving border infrastructure--and leave the bold continental policymaking to his hoped-for second term (as a majority leader). But Harper's soft approach could backfire. Bush's reduced popularity and an increasingly rebellious Congress raise doubts about whether the U.S. President is willing to spend his already diminished political capital on the issues that matter to Canada. Meanwhile in Ottawa, opposition M.P.s will pounce on any sign that Harper's much advertised tone change with Washington has failed to produce results.

Canada, in fact, might be ready for some straight talk about North America. As its neighbors grapple with domestic politics, Harper could take the lead by opening a national debate about the continent's future and Canada's place in it. He might argue that issues like softwood lumber will never go away until all three countries recognize the common challenges they face from an increasingly competitive world. "Canadians are looking for someone to exercise leadership on the border," says Carleton University trade-policy expert Michael Hart, who argues that the stakes are too high for the PM to wait for a comfortable majority at home. Adds Hart: "The future prosperity of Canada depends on the continued health of the North American economy." Even for the shrewdly cautious pols on Harper's team, that ought to carry weight.