Obama off to Canada to tighten ties

In Canada, the president's first foreign destination, the focus will be on rebuilding a deep alliance. Differences loom however, on climate change, protectionism, and troops in Afghanistan.

Dan riedhuber/reuters
Energy issues: Canada is the largest supplier of energy to the US, with much of it in the form of natural gas and oil, including petroleum from this refinery in Edmonton.

The economic crisis, a highly contentious trade issue, and energy will dominate the agenda as Barack Obama makes his first foreign visit as president, meeting with Canada's prime minister in a whirlwind tour Thursday.

President Obama hinted Tuesday that he hopes to find continued military support from Stephen Harper in Afghanistan beyond 2011. But if his conciliatory tenor – evident in a television interview aired in Canada in advance of the meeting – is any indication, the president appears to be using his maiden foreign visit to send a broader diplomatic signal: America wants to rebuild its alliances.

At the very least, the meeting with Canada's prime minister is expected to set the tone for relations for years to come. And although the Canadian leader's ideological views are more closely attuned to Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, the shared economic problems of both nations are likely to bridge partisan divides, analysts say.

"They're in the same boat, facing the realities of the world situation, so they will certainly be working together," says Colin Robertson, an expert in Canada-US trade relations. "The focus here for Obama – as it has been at home – is jobs. It's an integrated economy. We don't just trade things anymore. We make things together, so the emphasis is going to be on how we make things better together."

World's largest trading partnership

The survival of the Big Three automakers for example, who asked the US federal government for an additional $14 billion in bailout money this week, is just as important to Canada because the companies all operate major plants in Ontario, the country's manufacturing heartland. General Motors recently announced plans to cut 47,000 jobs globally, but the company's 11,000 workers in Canada appear to have been spared the axe.

The two countries are not only old friends, they're also business partners, with bilateral trade topping $500 billion yearly. "It's the largest trading relationship in the world," says Denis McDonough, US deputy national security adviser.

The president's stopover, scheduled to last six hours, will include a working lunch and a joint press conference by the two leaders, as well as a meeting between the president and Michael Ignatieff, a former Harvard University professor and the new leader of Canada's main opposition party. President Obama's delegation, which includes top advisers for security, the economy, and energy, reflects the journey's emphasis.

Although the two leaders are likely to find common ground on many economic issues, the controversial "Buy American" clause attached to the $787 billion economic stimulus plan signed into law by the president Tuesday has been playing badly in Canada. In recent weeks, Prime Minister Harper has said he wants to ensure that it does not lead to protectionist measures that would squeeze Canadian steel and iron manufacturers. In the wake of intense lobbying, lawmakers in the US added the caveat that the provision could not violate international trade agreements, including WTO and NAFTA pacts.

President Obama tried to allay fears, saying Canadians "shouldn't be too concerned" about the "Buy American" clause. "Canada is one of our most important trading partners, we rely on them heavily ... it is not in anybody's interest to see that trade diminish," the president told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, both environmentalists and oil industry executives will be listening closely to the outcome of any discussions over energy.

Dispute looming over oil sands?

Environmentalists have been heavily critical of Harper's environmental record, particularly the widespread extraction of oil-rich sands in Alberta, and have recently been running ads in US newspapers, urging the Obama administration to "say no to dirty oil."

The industry is concerned that the president's aggressive green-energy plans and initiatives to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions will make their operations too costly. Harper has long touted Canada as an emerging energy superpower and has proposed a joint Canada-US climate regime as one way of blunting possible punitive regulatory measures from the United States.

Some political watchers believe energy issues may well be a flash point between the two leaders.

"It's a crucial economic issue and I don't think Canada has any reason to be confident on the successful outcome of this issue,'' says Prof. Paul Quirk, who specializes in US politics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. "The US administration is likely to be quite avid in its concern for reducing the causes of climate change."

No push likely for more troops

And on the same day the president committed an additional 17,000 American troops to Afghanistan, Obama told the CBC that problems there can't be solved by military means alone. He said that the situation would also require diplomacy and development of a comprehensive strategy he hopes "that ultimately the people of Canada can support." Obama said he will be asking America's allies to ''think through" their approach to Afghanistan. Still, he fell short of asking Canada to reconsider its plan to pull its troops out at the end of 2011.

Since the 1920s, about half the first foreign trips of US presidents have been to Canada. The personal relationship between North America's two top leaders has varied over time. Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney famously celebrated their common heritage, most notably by taking to the stage and singing "When Irish Eyes are Smiling."

However, there was no love lost between Richard Nixon and Pierre Elliott Trudeau. In a well-publicized incident, Mr. Nixon used an expletive to describe Mr. Trudeau after a meeting in the Oval Office, prompting Trudeau to respond: "I've been called worse things by better people."

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