Building the Stephen-Barack bond

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National Post, Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Last June, after Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination for president, Stephen Harper called to congratulate him. It was an unusual step, in that the Prime Minister normally would wait until the November general election to telephone the winner, but Harper covered that off with a second call to the Republican nominee, John McCain.

Besides, Harper wanted to apologize for any damage Obama suffered from the leak of a Canadian diplomatic note, based on a conversation with an Obama campaign official, indicating that Obama's threat to reopen NAFTA was just campaign rhetoric. In the midst of a competitive Ohio primary, which he lost by 10 points to Hillary Clinton, the leak didn't look good on Obama. It didn't look too good on Harper either, especially in the self-absorbed media universe of Ottawa, where conspiracy theories immediately abounded about highly placed Conservatives plotting with the Republicans to harm Obama.

Though Harper had offered regrets in the House, and even named an inquiry to get to the bottom of it, he thought a personal apology was in order in his first conversation with the presumptive Democratic nominee.

No big deal, Obama replied, no worries, and thanks.

That said, Harper got on with the remainder of the 10-minute call, wished Obama good luck in November, and invited him to Canada in the event he won the White House.

So now it begins, the jostling among foreign governments for the attention of the president-elect, who will have more important things to figure out (like naming a White House staff and choosing a cabinet), than deciding when and if to visit Canada. It certainly wasn't on Obama's itinerary as part of his excellent summer adventure to Iraq, France, Germany and Britain, where he met all the sitting heads of government. (It was actually his opponent,

McCain, who made a one-day visit to Ottawa in June, and delivered a speech that was remarkably crafted to Canadian sensibilities on trade, the environment, Afghanistan and the historic nature of our bilateral relations.)

For what it's worth, Harper has privately predicted for months that Obama would win the White House. "It's his to win," the Prime Minister told a visitor in mid-August, when the polls were much tighter than the result turned out to be.

As it happens, Harper will be in Washington next week for the emergency economic summit of G20 leaders called by George W. Bush. But it's highly unlikely Harper or any of his colleagues will see the President-elect then, since the Americans are very serious about having only one president at a time.

But beyond the pleasantries of their next conversation, and beyond the formalities of their first meeting, there's a relationship to be struck, and national interests to be maintained on both sides of the border.

So, if a President Obama is serious about reopening the NAFTA, Harper will be happy to remind him that Canada is America's largest supplier of oil and gas, and that NAFTA's chapter on energy would be the first section up for renegotiation. But no serious person suggests that is going to happen, least of all in the context of a global financial crisis and looming recession. Besides, everyone knows that Washington's main issue isn't with Canada, or even Mexico, it's with China, as well as with American companies, "shipping jobs overseas."

Obama may never have been to Canada, but he just has to look out the window at Lake Michigan from his campaign headquarters in Chicago's Loop, to know that Great Lakes water management has been a continuous bilateral issue since the creation of the International Joint Commission in 1909. Canada-U. S. trade? Obama knows that Illinois's largest customer by far is Canada, which buys $13-billion a year from Illinois, supporting 300,000 jobs there, and accounting for 27% of the state's exports. He would also know that CN and the CPR are among the biggest continental railways using Chicago's famed freight yards. Obama might be the candidate of hope and change, but he's also a pol from the south side of Chicago.

Afghanistan? Obama has pledged to intensify the U. S. effort there, and indeed the Bush administration is in the midst of what the President has called "a quiet surge" in U. S. troop strength. It may come as something of a surprise to Obama that Harper, in the midst of his own recent campaign, announced that Canada would be leaving the neighbourhood in 2011.

Gosh, the things that politicians say during elections.

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