Last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper interrupted his trip to India to offer President Barack Obama his congratulations on his reelection. In Canada, there had been talk that Conservative Prime Minister Harper may have preferred a more ideologically-similar partner like Mitt Romney to govern our closest political neighbor and ally and strongest commercial partner.
But anyone who knows Canadian-American relations and history should know that interests and interpersonal relationships play a greater role than ideological kinship.
To his credit, Harper, who won a minority government victory a month before Obama's win in 2008, sent a clear signal that his approach to U.S. relations would be pragmatic and sensitive to the president-elect's interests and agenda. The appointment of NDP Premier Gary Doer as Canada's ambassador to Washington in 2009 had all the makings of Harper's desire for a smooth and operational relationship. He was not wrong: Doer has shown aplomb and pragmatism while gaining access, which is so critical and crucial for a functional partnership.
Both Canada and the U.S. have maintained what continues to be the strongest commercial relationship in the world. They share both energy and security objectives, and are committed to make border activity more effective and safe for both countries. The controversy over the Keystone Pipeline from Alberta may soon test the relationship, but we can be sure that whatever the outcome of the environmental assessment of the project, both countries stand to gain more from a smooth relationship than a frosty one. Obama's recent insistence that Canada participate in the Trans-Pacific commercial talks shows how our relationship is deep and complex. Both leaders understand the benefits.
Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who negotiated both a free trade and an acid rain agreement with President Reagan, once indicated that a strong interpersonal relationship can go a long way in making the Canadian-U.S. partnership a win-win situation. To illustrate, Mulroney claimed that he had told Reagan before a public announcement was made that Canada would break from the U.S. position on sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime. According to Mulroney, we can disagree without being disagreeable.
Harper and Obama will never be weekend buddies, but they have much in common. They are both cerebral and pragmatic types, and are able to choose interests over ideology when the circumstances dictate such a choice. David Jacobson, a close friend of Obama, is the U.S. ambassador in Canada, and Doer is Harper’s man of confidence in Washington, so each leader has a trusted representative in each other's capital. You can be sure that the Prime Minister was gracious and sincere in his post-election call. After all, despite all the talk by pundits, we know Obama was Harper's choice.
John Parisella is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently an invited professor at University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. His Twitter account is @JohnParisella.