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Canada's Peace, Order and Unreliable Government

Christopher Sands

As Barack Obama’s transition team efficiently assembles an administration in the United States and Republicans begin preparing for their next chance at election in 2010, some Americans have been looking north and reconsidering what they thought they knew about Canada.

Peace, order and good government appear to have given way in Ottawa, and only peace remains a reliable assumption. What does this mean for U.S.-Canadian relations?

Had the opposition coalition plan succeeded in displacing the Harper government this week, Canada would have seen five governments in the past five years. For four of those years, Canada has had a minority government.

In one sense, a minority government does not alter the usual pattern of bilateral relations: Canadian governments continue to petition for favors and concessions in Washington under majority and minority governments alike. In another sense, minority governments are damaging: They become Ottawas standard excuse for avoiding concessions or action on issues that matter to Washington.

More troops for Afghanistan? Action to address the market manipulations of the Canadian Wheat Board? Participation in missile defense? Sorry, it would be too difficult given the minority position of the government.

This leaves Washington with two options: unilateralism, or benign neglect.

The United States has over the past four years relied frequently on unilateral approaches when it came to border security, or defence of the continent against missile attacks. It has also left Canada alone on economic issues, including some that matter, such as climate change. Engaging Canada is time-consuming and ultimately futile if Canadian governments cannot or will not act.

Scores of Canadian foreign-policy scholars have offered variations on the opinion that Canada must be able to do things, not just talk about things, in order to regain influence in international affairs. The problem is acute when dealing in Washington, a city of bluff players skeptical of words and attentive to deeds. The broad U.S. consensus places Canada among the ranks of U.S. allies such as the Netherlands and Denmark: small, with capacity to make limited but often helpful contributions on the margins of the worlds crises.

So, the incoming Obama administration may start with low expectations of Canadas help as it prepares to address simultaneously the collapse of Detroits automakers, a global financial crisis, an energy market roller coaster, climate change fears and a metastasizing war with transnational terrorist groups.

This week, those expectations fell even lower as the opposition coalition proposed to replace a minority government with something even weaker and less able to act: a coalition minority government, with just 114 seats out of 308 in the House of Commons, a lame duck party leader as acting prime minister, and an alliance with separatists.

Stephen Harper may have mortally wounded todays opposition coalition threat with the prorogation of Parliament to January 26. But in 2005, Harper himself tried to bring down the Martin minority government in May, was thwarted when Belinda Stronach switched parties, and tried again a few months later in October, finally succeeding. If todays coalition fails to defeat Harper and the Conservatives, isnt it likely that another attempt will follow, perhaps once the Liberals have a new and more popular leader?

Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office with a historic first hundred days of action based on electoral momentum. Barack Obama has moved quickly to put his administration together because today, a U.S. presidents best chances to get things done are in the first 18 months of a term after that come midterm elections that serve as a referendum on the progress of the new president and can effectively kill momentum and clip the wings of presidential leadership thereafter. It is a limited window of opportunity, soon closed.

It is difficult to imagine a government in Ottawa that would be able to escape the current pall of political instability and weakness any time during the first two years of the Obama administration. This does not mean that Canadians or their interests will be maltreated, punished, or maliciously ignored by Washington. U.S. policymakers will pity Ottawa, indulge it when possible, and ignore it only when necessary.

However, the sad truth is that while Canadians have much to gain from an energetic partnership with the new Obama administration, it now looks as though the Canadian government will be too sick to come out and play.

Ordinary Canadians will have to content themselves with watching as political leaders in Ottawa and Washington proceed as though they weren’t even there.

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