With Barack Obama president-elect, what's next for Canada?

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      The Democrats may take the White House, but a famous Republican could join all the president’s men and women.

      When I was nine years old, I made friends with a boy who was a year older, bigger, and much stronger than I. He was also the neighbourhood bully, so it seemed like a good strategic move, to that childhood horse sense that seems reasonable when you’re nine. We did have some good times—fishing, playing baseball, the usual kid stuff—but our activities were always on his terms. And they usually ended up with us (well, mainly me) getting in some sort of trouble.

      Such it is with Canada and the United States. We live in the same neighbourhood. The U.S. is older, more muscled, more aggressive, and, quite often, Canada winds up getting the short end of the stick. As in the schoolyard, our leaders often don’t play well together: John Diefenbaker and John Kennedy referred to each other as a “fool” and a “prick”, respectively; Lyndon Johnson, incensed over Lester Pearson’s Vietnam policy, grabbed Pearson by the lapels and growled, “You pissed on my rug!”; and, most famously, there’s the Watergate tape of Richard Nixon calling Pierre Trudeau an “asshole”, to which Trudeau sniffed, “I’ve been called worse things by better people.”

      With the November 4 U.S. presidential election rapidly approaching, the question is raised: how will a change in American leadership affect Canada? Or, more pointedly, with America weary of eight years of Republican excess, and John McCain having guzzled the Bush Kool-Aid, how would a Barack Obama presidency affect Canada?

      For now, it does seem that Obama and Stephen Harper are interested in keeping their relationship friendly—or, at the very least, they’ve opened the lines of communication.

      First, there was the story that a senior Obama aide tipped off Consul General Georges Rioux that Obama’s anti-NAFTA stump talk was just campaign bluster. Then, in August, Harper dispatched Health Minister Tony Clement to the Democratic National Convention to get a foot in the door. “The prime minister believes that we have to be more aggressive in representing Canadian values and interests in the American political scene,” Clement told reporters.

      Although the diplomatic tone and policies are set by the leaders of the two countries, it’s important to note that a lot of the heavy lifting is done by their staffs as servants (and enforcers) of their will. Looking at a potential Obama administration should give us an idea how things may play out.

      Obama’s first major staff decision, Joe Biden for vice president, indicates big changes on the horizon for U.S. foreign policy. While the duties of the vice president may be pretty much ceremonial (former VP John Nance Garner described the office as “not worth a bucket of warm piss”), picking Biden is important symbolically. An internationalist and harsh critic of Bush’s unilateral foreign policy, Biden has always preferred to work within a UN framework rather than from staunch American imperialism. And as far as Canadian interests go, Biden last year led the way in a Senate initiative to spend US$552 million with General Dynamics Canada. Clearly, Biden is someone not afraid to spend a lot of money in Canada.

      As for his cabinet, Obama has scattered numerous clues as to whom he’s leaning toward for some key positions—most importantly for secretary of state, the chief diplomat and the president’s principal adviser on foreign affairs. All of the likely candidates, including John Kerry and Republican senator Dick Lugar, would bring a more Canada-friendly agenda to the table, but the best-case scenario for Canada would probably be Connecticut senator Chris Dodd. A staunch liberal currently sitting on the Senate foreign-relations committee, Dodd has voted in favour of allowing imported prescription medications from Canada, a good indication that he’s not a strict protectionist. He also recently spoke out in the Senate against the rendition of Canadian citizen Maher Arar. (Deported by the U.S. to Syria, where he was tortured, Arar was finally exonerated and returned to Canada after 374 days in captivity.)

      Regardless, it’s likely that whoever is appointed secretary of state will be kept on a short leash. “Presidents run their own foreign policy out of the White House,” says Michael Fellman, an American history expert and professor at Simon Fraser University. “That’s become increasingly the case in the past 30 years.” About the Bush foreign policy, Fellman continues, “the Bush White House group was very small and they were the same people who were setting military policy. I think Obama’s a much brighter person; he may be willing to work with a wider range of talented people and give them more latitude of action, but the office of the presidency, especially in foreign affairs, is extremely powerful.”

      It’s also unlikely that any great changes to NAFTA will come about, despite the stern rhetoric during last February’s Ohio and Texas primaries. Obama always knew that NAFTA was a can of worms better left unopened (what with concerns about American access to Canadian oil and water), and by summer he had changed his tune. Although he’s still making some noises about “opening up a dialogue”, that’s just a sop to the rust-belt voters. For all intents and purposes, a unilateral reopening of NAFTA is off the table.

      Along with trade, law and order is always a huge issue in the U.S. And with John Edwards now suffering from electile dysfunction, there’s no clear front-runner for attorney general. Look for the job to most likely be given to a liberal along the lines of former deputy attorney general Eric Holder or Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. Although mainly concerned with internal U.S. law, the attorney general can affect Canadians greatly—take, for example, the Arar case. The U.S. government has still refused to issue an apology, and, in fact, courts in New York have dismissed a lawsuit brought forward by Arar on the grounds of “national security”. (Fun fact: co-named in the lawsuit was Homeland Security boss Tom Ridge, McCain’s leading choice for VP until he caved in to the John Birchers and fundies and threw in his lot with Sarah Palin.)

      “Yes we can” is a common refrain from Barack Obama, but it will take more than a mantra to solve the nation’s economic woes. Obama for America photo.

      A progressive choice for attorney general would go a long way toward repairing the massive security and civil-liberty injustices perpetrated by the Bush administration over the past eight years. Fellman says: “The way they’ve undercut civil liberties, I think Obama would be better on those issues and better for Canada.” Of course, these things can work both ways—with all the Bush malfeasance, it’s easy to forget that it was Canadian intelligence who dropped the dime on Arar to the FBI in the first place.

      A few years ago, it would have seemed laughable that the Republican star of such movies as Kindergarten Cop and Jingle All the Way could ever be secretary of anything, let alone in a Democratic administration. But, in one of the more bizarre possibilities, Obama may actually be considering Arnold Schwarzenegger for a cabinet position, most likely secretary of energy or head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

      When questioned by ABC News regarding his potential cabinet, Obama said: “What he’s [Schwarzenegger’s] doing on climate change in California is very important and significant”¦he’s taken leadership on a very difficult issue and we haven’t seen that kind of leadership in Washington.” In turn, Schwarzenegger (who has endorsed John McCain) suggested that he was open to the idea and would “take his [Obama’s] call now, and I’d take his call when he’s president”. Although Schwarzenegger is a moderate Republican, his connection to the film industry has resulted in him stridently opposing U.S. film production in Canada. If selected, he could attempt to push energy practices into a much more protectionist stance.

      With anti-Iraq-War Republican senator Chuck Hegel the leading contender, secretary of defence is a position that can affect Canada immensely. Take, for example, the current doctrine of “military integration”: just last February, Canadian and U.S. military forces signed an agreement that allows either nation to send troops across the others' border in the vaguely worded case of “civil emergency”. (A natural disaster? Zombies? Scarier, even: something akin to the martial law declared during the FLQ crisis.) Although it’s yet to be seen what agreements like this will mean for Canadian sovereignty, they obviously come with some degree of risk. And the fact that the treaty was not publicly announced by the Canadian government makes it seem even more ominous.

      Although Canada has officially managed to stay out of the Iraq quagmire, it still plays an important role. By sending troops to Afghanistan, Canada has effectively freed up American troops to be redeployed to Iraq. “They can rent our troops for Afghanistan,” Fellman says. “Frankly, that’s my greatest concern about our bilateral relations.”

      Should Obama be elected, get ready for the emphasis to return to Afghanistan. For his part, Sen. Hegel sees Afghanistan as “the real terrorist threat”, and although he’s no hawk, Obama isn’t exactly a dove, either. His plan to have U.S. troops out of Iraq by mid 2010 is tempered by his desire for more U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and Obama has indicated that he intends to ask other NATO countries to help. He’s made it clear that Afghanistan “has to be our central focus, the central front on our battle against terrorism”.

      Since coming to power in 2006, Harper has been steadily beefing up the Canadian military. His new $30-billion, 20-year “Canada First” military plan is a perfect example—and there’s no better place to get practice, and give your growing officer corps experience, than in battle. “It’s a very important part of the Harper mentality, increasing the military,” Fellman says, “and the best way to grow an army is to use it.”

      The Harper government has committed to staying in Afghanistan until at least 2011, which will undoubtedly put Canadian troops at the sharp end of the American spear. Definitely a tough place to be, considering how invading armies in Afghanistan have fared in the past. (Just ask the British and the Soviets.) Depending on what happens with Pakistan’s leadership, coalition troops could even conceivably pursue al-Qaeda members into Pakistan, greatly enlarging the scope of the war. “There may be increased Canadian involvement in foreign wars,” Fellman says, “which had not been the case up to Afghanistan. That was actually a very important shift.”

      There’s also the matter of financial cost. On October 9, parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page reported that the Afghan mission has cost Canada a lot more than the Harper government has let on. Page estimates that by the time Canadian troops leave in 2011, the total cost of the war to Canada could be as high as $18.1 billion.

      However, as important as policy and personnel decisions are, there’s still one factor in this election that overshadows all others: the U.S. economy.

      As far as Canada is concerned, therein lies the rub: we may share the world’s largest trade relationship, but with the U.S. having a population of more than 300 million and a gross domestic product of more than US$13 trillion, it’s pretty much one-sided. Canada will always, in a very real way, be influenced by the economy south of the border. As Fellman says: “Our prosperity is tied to the American economy, and that’s inescapable. It would be great to think that the Democrats would be fiscally more responsible if they got elected, and that would be good for us.”

      If Obama is able to resuscitate the U.S economy, then Canada will certainly benefit, in a “rising tide lifts all boats” scenario. Unfortunately, the odds are stacked heavily against whoever is elected president this November. Over the past eight years, America under the Bush administration has amassed a massive amount of debt (national, corporate, and foreign) as well as an increased medical and social-security liability.

      In October, the U.S. government had to pony up US$700 billion to bail out the country’s banking system, the result of a deregulated industry with all the ethics and foresight of a Ponzi scheme. Then, within a week, the Treasury Department reported that the U.S. budget deficit is at a mind-boggling US$455 billion, and the national debt topped US$10 trillion for the first time (a figure so staggering that an extra digit had to be added to the national debt clock in New York’s Times Square). Hardly a mess that a freshman president will be able to fix anytime soon—even assuming he has a sympathetic Congress.

      Hopefully, as he tells us, Obama will bring “the change we need” and usher in a new day for the economy, social issues, and international relations. Before that day comes, however, we should probably follow Bette Davis’s famous advice in All About Eve: “Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.”




      Oct 30, 2008 at 7:34pm

      He could annex the country for oil, water or whatever, but a republican could not.


      Oct 31, 2008 at 11:09am

      Harper and Obama get along - like Obama and George Bush. As if!!.

      I suspect when the indictments for Harper's cronies start coming down in the USA, neocon's will be held in such high odour that no international body will have anything to do with Harper and his gang. Canada with its green party , neocon media, and low information voters will soon start paying the price for electing a neocon government.


      Oct 31, 2008 at 6:02pm

      Canada can expect "more of the same". We (courtesy of both the Libs and Cons over the last 20 years) have become a rather valuable warehouse of resources for the US. That country is not apt to relinquish the present control it enjoys, regardless of the party in power.

      Besides, I don't trust Obama anymore than I do McCain.............