Michael Barone is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and writes regularly for National Review and the Washington Examiner. He is also a fellow Detroiter, and co-author of the Almanac of American Politics which is an invaluable, constituency-by-constituency guide to U.S. elections. His Boxing Day column argues that the Obama administration has a mixed record when it comes to foreign policy: failing in areas of innovation inspired by campaign politics, but succeeding where he has followed the foreign policy of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Barone’s scorecard includes lots of debatable points and penalty calls, but one part of the world he skips over is Canada. Let me add to the provocation by noting that I think that President Obama has pursued a generally good foreign policy towards Canada where he has continued the policies of his predecessor, and has been less successful when he has deviated from the Bush approach.
Most notably, Obama has carried forward negotiations on security and economic policy coordination. The Bush administration’s Security and Prosperity Partnership is gone, but talks in both areas are continuing bilaterally; the trilateral approach is gone, but the U.S. is negotiating on parallel tracks with Canada and Mexico.
Bush was grateful for Canadian support in Afghanistan, and comfortable with the Canadian departure from the country in 2011 while hoping that Canada might be persuaded to participate in training even after its troops had gone. Obama has taken the same stance.
In the Arctic, the Bush administration ended with a presidential decision directive committing the United States to secure shipping and peaceful use of the Northwest Passage alone, holding out the hope that Canada might take up some of this responsibility when it was able, and conceding nothing in terms of sovereignty claims. Obama has continued this policy.
The biggest infrastructure project on the U.S.-Canadian border, a new bridge between Detroit and Windsor has had the strong support of both the Bush and Obama administrations, and has been hung up by local politics in Michigan. Still, the federal commitment to building the project remains strong. And many pilot projects initiated under Bush to prepare for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver were continued and expanded by the Obama administration.
The Bush administration began the bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler, which the Canadian government participated in, and both governments have coordinated their policies to facilitate Fiat’s purchase of Chrysler and General Motors gradual return to the private sector.
On another component of the stimulus, Obama broke with Bush and sparked tension with the Harper government. “Buy American” requirements for U.S. stimulus spending satisfied Obama’s trade union supporters, but upset Canadian firms.
And the Obama administration has staked out a controversial position on the Keystone XL pipeline as well, roiling the U.S.-Canadian relationship in order to placate demands from environmental groups whose support the president needs for re-election.
This incomplete tally suggests that a second term for Obama might be good for Canada. Obama’s departure from Bush policies regarding Canada has been driven by electoral considerations, and in a second term, Obama might be less inclined to make such concessions to his base at Canada’s expense. And continued efforts at border and regulatory cooperation could help the economies of both countries to improve their competitiveness.
This is not to say that a Republican president wouldn’t do the same. Barone notes that most presidential candidates start with a critique of their predecessor, but in practice tend toward continuity with their predecessors’ approach to foreign policy. For Canadians, this is a useful reminder to remain sanguine about 2012 and the inevitable controversies that will be sparked by campaign rhetoric. Despite all the talk, actions prove more consistent from one president to another.