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Obama-Harper Summit: Why Did it Take So Long?

Christopher Sands

U.S. President Barack Obama will host Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the White House today. As the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, it is a day that lives “in infamy” for Americans. The only infamous thing about this week’s meeting, though, is the struggle undertaken to schedule it.

On Feb. 4 this year, Obama and Harper met at the White House and issued two Washington Declarations, one on border security and the other on regulatory co-operation. Each set up a working group composed of representatives of both governments, and the working groups were to negotiate targets for action that would constitute their first year agendas. These agendas in turn would be made public so that interested citizens and stakeholders would be able to comment and submit ideas while talks were underway.

The public release of the working agendas is an important component of the process: Under the George W. Bush administration’s Security and Prosperity Partnership talks, there was sharp criticism from civil society and business groups, as well as from members of Congress, that the agendas for the talks were secret. The Obama administration pledged greater transparency as it scrapped the SPP and developed the new framework for talking with Canada and Mexico about border security and regulatory cooperation in tandem (rather than trilaterally).

Unofficially, it has been known for months that the U.S.-Canadian border co-operation talks have produced a working agenda. It has not been released because Ottawa wanted an Obama-Harper joint appearance to add the leaders’ imprimatur to the agenda. Canadian officials judged this crucial as the U.S. electoral cycle and budget crises crowded out other items on the Washington agenda. White House officials considered a meeting between the leaders to be a major request, since the president has a full schedule of travel and meetings associated with the global economy, international security situations, debt ceiling negotiations with Congress, and barnstorming the country on behalf of his re-election campaign.

U.S. officials proposed that the leaders meet in New York during the United Nations General Assembly meetings, but the Prime Minister’s Office worried that the Obama-Harper meeting would be overshadowed by the Palestinian recognition debate. The White House suggested meeting during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hawaii, but there was a trilateral meeting that would have included Mexican President Felipe Calderon planned as well, and the PMO wanted a clear, bilateral context for the announcement of the agenda — in the end, when Calderon could not attend the Hawaii summit due to the death of his interior minister, it was too late to add the border co-operation agenda to what became an amiable photo-op featuring the two leaders.

Thus Harper was invited to the White House for a bilateral meeting this week, and the key piece of business will be to let the public know what officials have known for months — the extent and scope of the two countries’ ambitions to improve security and efficient border management.

It shouldn’t have taken so long to make this announcement of what will be, after all, a to-do list and not a litany of accomplishments. The PMO may have projected assumptions based on the Canadian system onto the way that Washington works. In Canada, if the prime minister wants something done, the civil service will do it, even if skeptical or opposed; a public announcement, usually in the House of Commons, of the government’s intent is all that is required.

In Washington, things work differently. The president announces goals, agendas, and intentions all the time, particularly during an election year. Then political appointees throughout the executive branch begin the process of trying to implement these plans working with the career civil service, many members of which will resist pressure to act to protect turf or maintain policy consistency with other statutes or foreign partners, and may also worry about finding the resources to support special treatment for Canadians. The result can be institutional delays and obstacles to progress — at least until the outcome of the next election is clear.

Harper hopes that by once again having Obama publicly declare support for border and regulatory talks with Canada, this will safeguard progress in these talks during a difficult year for getting anything done in Washington. He also hopes that Obama’s support will reassure Canadians that the Conservative government is prepared to prudently steer relations with the United States through the stormy political and economic waters of 2012.

This is the best outcome we can expect from the Harper-Obama meeting. The infamy in all this is that these talks will affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens, and could help or hurt the chances for economic recovery. In short, they matter, and should proceed with all deliberate speed, and most importantly of all, they should be transparent. Even now U.S. electoral considerations threaten to close the window for progress while officials in Ottawa and Washington debate the colour and shape of the drapery.

The public in both countries deserved better. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the White House today. As the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, it is a day that lives “in infamy” for Americans. The only infamous thing about this week’s meeting, though, is the struggle undertaken to schedule it.

On Feb. 4 this year, Obama and Harper met at the White House and issued two Washington Declarations, one on border security and the other on regulatory co-operation. Each set up a working group composed of representatives of both governments, and the working groups were to negotiate targets for action that would constitute their first year agendas. These agendas in turn would be made public so that interested citizens and stakeholders would be able to comment and submit ideas while talks were underway.

The public release of the working agendas is an important component of the process: Under the George W. Bush administration’s Security and Prosperity Partnership talks, there was sharp criticism from civil society and business groups, as well as from members of Congress, that the agendas for the talks were secret. The Obama administration pledged greater transparency as it scrapped the SPP and developed the new framework for talking with Canada and Mexico about border security and regulatory cooperation in tandem (rather than trilaterally).

Unofficially, it has been known for months that the U.S.-Canadian border co-operation talks have produced a working agenda. It has not been released because Ottawa wanted an Obama-Harper joint appearance to add the leaders’ imprimatur to the agenda. Canadian officials judged this crucial as the U.S. electoral cycle and budget crises crowded out other items on the Washington agenda. White House officials considered a meeting between the leaders to be a major request, since the president has a full schedule of travel and meetings associated with the global economy, international security situations, debt ceiling negotiations with Congress, and barnstorming the country on behalf of his re-election campaign.

U.S. officials proposed that the leaders meet in New York during the United Nations General Assembly meetings, but the Prime Minister’s Office worried that the Obama-Harper meeting would be overshadowed by the Palestinian recognition debate. The White House suggested meeting during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hawaii, but there was a trilateral meeting that would have included Mexican President Felipe Calderon planned as well, and the PMO wanted a clear, bilateral context for the announcement of the agenda — in the end, when Calderon could not attend the Hawaii summit due to the death of his interior minister, it was too late to add the border co-operation agenda to what became an amiable photo-op featuring the two leaders.

Thus Harper was invited to the White House for a bilateral meeting this week, and the key piece of business will be to let the public know what officials have known for months — the extent and scope of the two countries’ ambitions to improve security and efficient border management.

It shouldn’t have taken so long to make this announcement of what will be, after all, a to-do list and not a litany of accomplishments. The PMO may have projected assumptions based on the Canadian system onto the way that Washington works. In Canada, if the prime minister wants something done, the civil service will do it, even if skeptical or opposed; a public announcement, usually in the House of Commons, of the government’s intent is all that is required.

In Washington, things work differently. The president announces goals, agendas, and intentions all the time, particularly during an election year. Then political appointees throughout the executive branch begin the process of trying to implement these plans working with the career civil service, many members of which will resist pressure to act to protect turf or maintain policy consistency with other statutes or foreign partners, and may also worry about finding the resources to support special treatment for Canadians. The result can be institutional delays and obstacles to progress — at least until the outcome of the next election is clear.

Harper hopes that by once again having Obama publicly declare support for border and regulatory talks with Canada, this will safeguard progress in these talks during a difficult year for getting anything done in Washington. He also hopes that Obama’s support will reassure Canadians that the Conservative government is prepared to prudently steer relations with the United States through the stormy political and economic waters of 2012.

This is the best outcome we can expect from the Harper-Obama meeting. The infamy in all this is that these talks will affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens, and could help or hurt the chances for economic recovery. In short, they matter, and should proceed with all deliberate speed, and most importantly of all, they should be transparent. Even now U.S. electoral considerations threaten to close the window for progress while officials in Ottawa and Washington debate the colour and shape of the drapery.

The public in both countries deserved better.

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