Border buddies are ready to wheel and deal

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Sun Media, Friday, February 4, 2011

For all the security hassles of hosting the G20 summit in Toronto last summer, there was an important moment in Canada-U.S. relations that went unremarked at the time.

At his closing news conference, U.S. President Barack Obama referred to the Canadian prime minister as “my friend and partner, Stephen Harper.”

That went beyond the normal courtesies of managing the world’s most important bilateral relationship. If there was a moment when Harper became Obama’s friend and partner, it was the auto bailout in the spring of 2009. The deal may have been shaped by officials, but it closed at the top when the two principals signed off on the package that saved the North American auto industry.

While it was always in Canada’s interest to keep GM and Chrysler in this country, it was important for Obama that he wasn’t going it alone in bailing out Detroit.

Similarly, it was important for Obama that Harper agree to Canada staying on in Afghanistan past this July in a re-profiled training — rather than combat — role. If the U.S. was prepared to triple the American presence to 100,000 troops, it was important that Canada, as America’s closest ally, not walk away from the mission.

In the two years since they’ve both been in office, Harper and Obama have met many times on the margins of G8, G20 and NATO summits. They’ve developed a solid working relationship and a good personal rapport that includes their wives, Laureen Harper and Michelle Obama.

While they come from different points on the political spectrum, Obama from the left and Harper from the right, both have done well by moving to the centre, as Harper has done since taking office five years ago, and as Obama has done since his “shellacking” in last November’s mid-term Congressional elections.

They belong to the same cohort, the middle-boomers, Harper having been born in 1959 and Obama in 1961. Temperamentally, both are analytical and emotionally detached, occasionally to their own detriment.

So the two leaders, who meet at the White House Friday, have developed a comfort level beyond their brief.

They may have something to announce on a North American security perimeter that takes the Canada-U.S. Security and Prosperity Partnership to the next level. Since 9/11, the world’s longest undefended border has become a worry rather than a boast. The Americans worry about security, the Canadians worry about trade and “a thickening” of the border impeding $1.5 billion of goods crossing it every day.

Whatever is announced Friday will not involve a diminution of Canadian sovereignty. That would be a flashpoint.

There will be a continuation of the “clean energy dialogue” launched by Obama and Harper at their Ottawa meeting two years ago.

The entire climate-change conversation is being re-framed around clean energy. Harper may remind Obama that Canada is America’s largest supplier of oil and gas.

That plays indirectly into a conversation about the turmoil in Egypt and the Middle East. It’s no coincidence that the price of oil has spiked this week.

Nearly two million barrels of oil a day move on ships through the Suez Canal, with another million barrels in the pipeline beside it.

Canada? We just happen to have proven oil reserves of 170 billion barrels, with security of supply not an issue.

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