While the economy, Afghanistan and border security have become the most significant issues in the Canada-U.S. relationship since the presidential election, environmental matters will not take a back seat for long. The environment is an issue of long-standing import between the two nations. There are many areas where the interests of Canada and the United States converge. Acid rain is a long-standing issue, where pollution in the U.S. industrial belt contributes to the destruction of Canadian forests. Alaskan overfishing of BC salmon is another issue of the past.
The main issue today, however, is that of climate change.
The Chretien administration and the Bush administration went their separate ways with respect to climate change, exemplified by Canada's signing of the Kyoto Accord. Through this era, Canada viewed itself as a nation that needed to take a leadership role on the issue of climate change whereas the United States proceeded as though science was irrelevant. The Harper administration brought Canadian environmental philosophy, at least at the highest political level, closer to that of the Bush administration. Indeed, even under Chretien, environmental policy consisted of far more talk than action.
Today, the immediacy of the economic crisis has somewhat superceded climate change. As with border security, the two leaders say the right things with respect to climate change. While it may be too early to evaluate the Obama administration's stand on environmental issues and global warming, Harper has never been especially clear in his articulation of Canada's strategy or objectives with respect to climate change. The nation is a net exporter of fossil fuels, to the extent that the Canadian dollar is now considered by most economists to be a petrocurrency. This reality threatens to color Canada's views on climate change. The United States, as a major user of fossil fuels, has greater incentive to develop an economy for a post-fossil fuel future. In any case, there appears to be little traction for major initiatives with respect to this issue for either country in the near future, despite the fact that the issue is likely to guide the course of the 21st century.
Outlook: The Next Few Years
As with any relationship, that between Canada and the United States will be driven by a handful of key issues. Within the context of these issues, it is reasonable to expect that that nature of the relationship will depend on the degree of congruence between the objectives of the two nations. The more the two nations agree on the desired state to be achieved by a given strategy or tactic, the more the two nations will agree on what that strategy or tactic should be.
Canada and the United States have long had a close, cordial relationship. As a result, this relationship has remained almost exclusively positive. The unique nature of this relationship is such that the only real threat to the positive nature of the relationship is damaging unilateral action. We saw this during the Chretien-Bush years, where political leadership traded barbs and generally disagreed on a wide range of issues of mutual interest. The relationship began to strengthen when the Harper government came to power, in part due to certain congruencies in outlook between the nations' respective administrations.
It is generally considered that the Harper government had more in common with the Bush administration than it does with the Obama administration. This view, however, can be tempered by a solid analysis of the reality. The first important point is that the Harper government is a minority government. They require support from one of the other major parties in order to pass bills, and therefore they are unable to take a stance that is too far to the right. Canadians are generally centrist to center-left in their political orientation. It is beyond the scope of this analysis to speculate on the future of the Harper government, or on the potential impact of a potential Ignatieff administration on Canada-U.S. relations. But it has been demonstrated in the past few years that the more hawkish tendencies of the Conservative party have been muted as a result of their minority status, bringing the Canadian government's views on many key issues closer to those of the center-left Obama administration.
We can see this high level of congruence with regards to the Afghanistan mission. Both Harper and Obama agree that improving conditions in Afghanistan is a priority and a key component of the war on terrorism. This marks a significant improvement in Canada-U.S. relations relative to the Bush administration, which all but ignored Afghanistan in their zeal to invade and occupy Iraq. While the Harper government has set a firm timetable for exiting Afghanistan, this may be subject to change if the political winds change. The current strategy review will go a long way to determining the relationship that Canada and the U.S. will have on the Afghanistan mission. But the two countries are thus far in agreement about the problem and the solutions.
With respect to trade, there are some differences between the two countries. Despite his possible protectionist leanings, Obama offers improvement over the previous regime. The Bush administration did not support free and fair trade to the extent that they would have liked people to think they did. This was a cause for significant consternation among Canadians, who typically enjoy better trade relations with the U.S. under Democrat leadership. Obama's protectionist leanings should be taken with a grain of salt. The two economies are intertwined in a complex manner. Pulling them apart is therefore detrimental to U.S. economic objectives. Both nations have benefited significantly from free trade.
In terms of improving relations, Obama's outcomes with respect to trade between the two nations may not be any better for relations, but his attitude will.
Border security, however, threatens to damage Canada-U.S. relations. For Canadians, the matter is one of trust. For Americans, it is one of fear. Canada deals with the issue on pragmatic terms; the U.S. has an incoherent strategy based on vague objectives of solving ill-defined problems for which there is no empirical support. This represents a major philosophical disconnect. Stephen Harper understands that border security is an issue affecting both countries equally. Despite Obama's best words on the matter, U.S. policy does not support Harper's view. The two countries have very different strategies based on very different objectives. At this point, there is no reason to believe that the Obama administration will be able to improve relations with Canada on this issue. Given that the issue will become a major political issue in Canada as border restrictions increase, the issue of border security threatens to undermine any improvements in Canada-U.S. relations made in other areas.
Lastly, the environment is an area where the two nations have differing interests. In the long-run, both nations have an equal interest in climate change, but the political agendas for the next few years promise to be different. Canada, less damaged by recession, can be expected to bring the issue to the fore in the near future while the U.S., mired in what looks to be a long-term recession, is not likely to do the same. As long as the issue remains minor, it will not sour relations, but if the issue becomes major (i.e. The economic impacts of climate change hit sooner rather than later) it will.
Relations between Canada and the United States became strained during the early part of the 00s as a result of serious, fundamental differences between the Chretien administration and the Bush administration. In recent years, the relationship between the two nations has improved. With the Obama administration, the Canada-U.S. relationship will continue to improve. On terrorism in general and Afghanistan in particular, the Obama de-emphasis on Iraq improves relations dramatically. Mutual trade interest will force the Obama administration away from the more detrimental policies that may otherwise have been undertaken. As a result, the relationship promises to grow stronger, because of high congruence of mutual interest. It is only the issue of border security that can threaten Canada-U.S. relations, as the two nations have divergent interests, viewpoints and strategies. U.S. policies in this area have the potential to be highly detrimental to the Canadian economy and become a political flashpoint. However, as long as the Obama administration does not adopt border policies that bring about this scenario, Canada-U.S. relations can be expected to improve over the next few years.
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