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Archive for Friday, February 20, 2009

Obama treads lightly in Canada

February 20, 2009

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— President Barack Obama courted warmer relations with America’s snowy northern neighbor Thursday, declining to ask war-weary Canada to do more in Afghanistan, promising he won’t allow a protectionist creep into U.S. trade policy and talking reassuringly around thorny energy issues.

Obama-happy crowds cheered Obama’s seven-hour visit, his first outside U.S. borders as president, and he returned the compliment with a quick stop at an indoor market where he delighted shopkeepers by picking up pastries and souvenirs for his daughters.

“I love this country and think that we could not have a better friend and ally,” Obama said as he appeared side-by-side with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at gothic Parliament Hill. He later slipped slightly as he walked to his plane and joked that the weather reminded him of Chicago.

Harper in turn rolled out the red carpet for the new U.S. president. The Conservative leader had been close to President George W. Bush, personally and on policy. But he made clear with subtle jabs backward that he was casting his and his country’s lot now with the vastly more popular Obama.

“As we all know, one of President Obama’s big missions is to continue world leadership by the United States of America, but in a way that is more collaborative,” Harper said, an apparent reference to Bush’s go-it-alone diplomatic style.

Still, rhetorical niceties aside, there are some sharp differences between the U.S. and its largest trading partner and biggest supplier of oil. On several topics, where Obama came armed with reassurances, Harper offered mini-lectures, albeit gently delivered.

On the 7-year-old Afghanistan war, for instance, the Canadian leader said that NATO and U.S. forces fighting a resurgent Taliban insurgency are not “through our own efforts going to establish peace and security in Afghanistan.” With Obama’s administration undertaking a broad review of the U.S. strategy there, Harper suggested that any new policy “have the idea of an end date, of a transition to Afghan responsibility for security, and to greater Western partnership for economic development.”

On Canada’s massive oil-rich tar sands, Harper suggested that the kind of emissions regulations that environmentalists would like Obama to support would be unfair, making a comparison to the U.S. coal industry. “It’s very hard to have a tough regulatory system here when we are competing with an unregulated economy south of the border,” Harper said.

On trade, Obama stuck to his pledge to eventually seek changes in the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement to increase enforcement of labor and environmental standards — but said he intended to do so in a way “that is not disruptive to the extraordinarily important trade relationships that exist between the United States and Canada.”

Harper said he might be willing to negotiate, but not by “opening the whole NAFTA and unraveling what is a very complex agreement.”

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