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Shifting Mood in Canada–U.S. Relations

In a recent blog, I described Canada’s new and emerging American economic challenge with our neighbor to the south as it was heading towards energy self-sufficiency with its consequent impact on the manufacturing sector of its economy. While Canada has increased its trade with new partners  in recent years and is actively pursuing new markets for its products through free trade agreements, I concluded by saying that the United States remains our number one export nation and this will not change in the near future.

On the political front, there are few relationships more stable and predictable than that of Canada and the U.S. We have fought wars together, have done peace missions together, have shared intelligence on national and continental security matters, and generally have had compatible national interests. The post-World War II years have seen some differences between these two neighbors, but none significant enough to doubt the depth of trust, commonality of interest, and shared commitment. At least until recently.

The current trip by Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, with a huge delegation of government officials and business people to the Middle East, including Israel, Jordan and the West Bank, has raised speculation that Canada has steadfastly decided on a go-it-alone policy at a crucial moment as U.S. diplomacy is actively pursuing peace in the region. The reception offered to the Canadian visitors by the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu is unmatched in recent memory and Prime Minister Harper has reciprocated with an unequivocal endorsement of Israel’s conditions for peace. Some observers in Canada are asking: is Canada more supportive of the Israeli government’s negotiating position than the brokering efforts of the U.S.? 

The Canada-Israel bond contrasts with the frosty relationship between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama. Considering the Israeli Prime Minister’s warmth to the Republican Party and its 2012 Presidential nominee, Governor Mitt Romney, and his public lecturing of President Obama, Netanyahu’s enthusiastic praise for Harper’s policy seems meant to convey an implicit mistrust of the U. S. government in its handling of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Clearly, this did not seem to be a factor in the Canadian Prime Minister’s trip.

The recent deal between Iran and the group of six nations (the U.K., the U.S. France, Russia, China, and Germany) to tackle the nuclear threat, largely brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry,  may be  a further indication that there is a growing shift towards greater Canadian independence in  Middle East politics. Canada closed its embassy in Iran in September 2012 and has only given lukewarm support to the deal by offering no relief in its sanctions there, unlike the U.S. and its European partners. Clearly, Harper’s stance shows greater solidarity with Netanyahu’s reservations about the U.S. brokered deal, a precedent in itself.

In Canada, there are differing views about Harper’s strong pro-Israel stance.  Some supporters say that Prime Minister Harper truly believes in the views expressed in his Knesset speech (despite some privately expressed objections to expanding settlements in the West Bank) and wishes to make his support vocal and uncompromising.  Detractors, however, see it as political calculation for the Jewish vote in crucial electoral ridings (federal electoral districts) for the next election, scheduled in 2015.  Canadian analyses of the trip will surely reflect these different views, but such debate indicates that something has changed in the Canada-U.S. relationship.

On the North American front, a recent visit by Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird with Secretary of State John Kerry was clearly meant to show that Canada is becoming impatient with the delays in U.S. approval of the Keystone Oil Pipeline. This project, endorsed with little to no reservations by Mitt Romney and the Republicans in 2012, has been stalled repeatedly by the Obama Administration due to environmental concerns. While Canadian impatience with the delay for a decision is understandable, the tone expressed in the Baird-Kerry meeting was strident and once again showed a shift that some here in Canada interpret as a growing rift between Harper and Obama.

Enthusiastic support for Netanyahu’s policies in peace negotiations, reservations on the Iran nuclear deal, and prickly insistence on a decision for the Keystone Project does illustrate a growing shift in the relationship between Canada and the U.S. Whether this is a circumstantial difference of opinion on policy areas between the two governments and their leaders, or a definite transformation in the relationship remains to be seen. One thing is for sure- the Canada-U.S. political relationship is no longer business as usual.

*John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: US-Canada relations, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, President Barack Obama

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