President Obama's February 19thday trip to Canada ushered in a new era in Canada U.S. relations. The trip not only re-established the tradition of U.S. Presidents' making Canada their first foreign trip but also underscored the historic importance of a strong, open and constructive relationship between the two countries and their leaders. This was the first meeting between President Obama and his counterpart Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. Cynics who say the meeting was inconsequential simply lack sufficient insight to grasp the significance of diplomacy and the dynamics of the Canada U.S. relationship.
The two economies are highly integrated. Each day, more than $1.5 billion dollars in goods and services cross the border between the two countries, making it the biggest trading relationship in the world. In fact, "the two economies are so closely linked that we sometimes take each other for granted" President Obama reminded us during a joint press conference.
Canada is the single largest supplier of oil to the U.S., not Saudi Arabia, as is the mistaken perception among Americans. For its part, Canada's economic well being is dependent on a healthy and robust American economy given that more than 80% of Canadian goods and services are destined for U.S. markets.
But as we know, all relationships are complicated and contradictory and nation states are not immune to such vagaries. So while the Alberta Tar Sands are the primary supplier of the energy that drives America's economic engine they are also the scourge of a green President. Similarly, the Japanese economy sputtered for more than a decade yet it remained the largest holder of American debt, until recently. China a nation of savers is now America's primary creditor.
Let us not forget that it was not very long ago that American officials took every opportunity to lecture China about human rights and intellectual property rights issues. Today the tune has changed. Case in point: during Secretary of State Clinton's maiden visit to Asia her message to China was one of strengthening partnership between the U.S. and China. No mention of human rights.
So, during this period of global economic turbulence punctuated with America's diminishing economic status and the rise of China's global influence, it is astute for America to remind its friends how much they are valued and to refer to their shared history. Call it a diplomatic retention strategy.
President Obama used his visit to Canada to underscore the "closeness and importance of " Canada U.S. relations. His visit provided Prime Minister Harper with a valuable platform to establish a personal relationship with the President. By all accounts he succeeded. Prime Minister Harper sagely used the joint press conference to speak directly to Americans and remind them that the Canadian government view "threats to the U.S. as threats to Canada ... there is no such thing as a threat to the U.S. that is not a threat to Canada."
Building on the momentum of President Obama's visit, Prime Minister Harper has taken on the role of Canada's leading spokesperson in America. The Prime Minister's appearance on CNN, Fox News and several other key international media organizations ensures that Canadian issues will not be lost in Washington's political whirlpool.
So while most leaders at the recent G20 summit in London jockeyed to establish a relationship with President Obama, Stephen Harper did not have to join that queue. Instead, he used the G20 platform to focus on other Canadian priorities while highlighting the virtues of the Canadian banking system.
Though brief, President Obama's February 19th visit to Canada provided the basis for strengthening the historical relationship between continental partners who share the largest unprotected border in the world. Despite the troubling short to mid-term economic prognosis for the U.S. economy, improved bi-lateral co-ordination on security, environment, and economic issues will remain vital to the long-term interests of both countries.