Is There a Problem in Canada-U.S. Relations?

Roland Paris points out new irritants to the Canada-U.S. partnership.

By: /
26 October, 2011
Roland Paris
By: Roland Paris
Director, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa

When they met in Washington last February, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama announced a “new long-term partnership” between Canada and the U.S., which would “accelerate the legitimate flows of people and goods between both countries, while strengthening security and economic competitiveness.” The first priority, they declared, was to draft a joint action plan identifying concrete trade- and security-enhancing measures both countries could pursue. The contents of the action plan would be announced “in the coming months”.

Informally, officials indicated that they hoped to complete the plan by summer. More than eight months have now passed, however, and we are still waiting for the announcement.

This delay isn’t troubling in itself. Negotiations can take time, and there’s no reason to doubt the government’s reports of “excellent progress” in the discussions. Nevertheless, it’s hard to shake the sense that something is not quite right, in part because the intervening period has seen a flurry of new U.S. measures, implemented or threatened, that would impose additional restrictions on cross-border commerce. This week, it was the approval of a new $5.50 levy on Canadians arriving in the U.S. by boat or plane. In previous weeks, it was the renewed threat that Canadian companies would be excluded from public contracts under so-called “Buy America” provisions, and a proposed new tariff on U.S.-bound rail freight.

If discussions towards a substantive bilateral action plan are, in fact, making excellent progress, why haven’t the same negotiators turned their talents to resolving – or, better yet, preventing – these new irritants? The answer, of course, is that things are not so simple. The American policy process is notoriously, unspeakably, gloriously chaotic. The proposed tariff on rail freight, for example, is the handiwork of two U.S. Senators from the State of Washington, who believe that Canadian ports have unfairly drawn container traffic from harbours in their home state. Congressional business is littered with such initiatives, few of which register on the White House radar screen as significant.

It is, however, noteworthy that several of these irritants have appeared at this time, when Canada and the U.S. are negotiating the terms of a new partnership. We are left with unanswered questions: Is the White House still committed to elaborating and pursuing a renewed agenda of bilateral cooperation? What, exactly, has been holding up the announcement of the action plan? Does the prime minister have the kind of personal relationship with Mr. Obama that would allow him to call in a political favour?

That favour would be a commitment of presidential attention and political capital to the task of strengthening the bilateral partnership. Without such a commitment from the White House, the natural tendency towards decentralized parochialism in the American policymaking system will continue to raise new barriers between Canada and the U.S. – awkwardly, at the very moment the two countries are supposed to be renewing their vows.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.

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