Conservative Stephen Harper’s January 23 election victory to become the next prime minister of Canada doesn’t mean that his country’s cool alliance with the United States will automatically warm up—at least, not without some cooperation from Washington.

The Ice Is Thin

Canadians may have voted Conservative to cashier Liberals for a government kickback scandal from a previous administration. To a lesser degree, they may be disenchanted with entitlement programs like socialized medicine, which is so bureaucratic patients flock to U.S. clinics to pay out of pocket for timely service. And there is growing regionalism—Harper represents oil-rich western provinces that favor increased local autonomy.

Still, Conservatives are isolated and vulnerable in a society that tilts toward the welfare state. Out of the four other major parties, the Tories can count on support from none. Yet the Liberals can depend on the kindred New Democratic Party, the Bloc Quebécois, and the Greens for occasional support on social and environmental policy.

While the Conservatives gained 25 seats in the House of Commons, they needed 32 more to obtain a majority. Moreover, the Liberals have been consistent in getting and keeping power, while minority governments have had a hard time lasting beyond two years. That’s thin ice to support big policy changes.

Friendship Matters

Despite constraints, the United States can do business with Harper. He is a thoughtful conservative. Though media savvy, he is less prone to posturing than Paul Martin, who shrunk from leadership on global warming and security and then took up Washington-bashing to look tough in front of TV cameras.

Unfairly painted by the media as a knee-jerk conservative on social issues, Harper has transcended that niche in the gay marriage and abortion debates and will exhibit pragmatic expertise in stewardship of Canada’s larger interests. He knows Canada’s future will hinge on competitiveness with emerging economic giants like China and India, with its contributions including shaping reasoned treaty obligations and regional security.

Like the United States, Canada is both an industrial and agricultural power. And unfortunately, it maintains similar trade barriers on some agricultural products. Both President Bush and Prime Minister Harper could work together to reduce these remaining bilateral constraints and then press other national leaders through the World Trade Organization to follow suit.

As well, Canada’s help in promoting a more competitive business environment in Mexico will bring commerce and jobs to our southern partner, boost trilateral trade against encroachment by Asian giants, and reverse enormous northward migrant flows. Canada is a member of the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Mexico. In blunt terms, Mexico is the weak link.

Canada’s contribution to a more equitable and reasonable approach to global environmental issues would be most welcome. Canadians may be in favor of broad international protections, but Mr. Harper could better inform that concern by explaining why the badly crafted Kyoto accord on global warming is worse that no agreement at all.

Paul Martin’s reduced defense budgets and retreat on supporting U.S. strategic missile defense (which would cost Canada nothing) have put into question Canada’s commitment to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) accord—up for renewal in May 2006 and now more important for both countries than ever. Harper could eliminate this uncertainty, to everyone’s benefit.

In facing transnational crime, terrorism, and non-military threats such as natural disasters, the NAFTA partners are equally challenged. But Mexico—looking inward for most of its history—has more work to do than the U.S. or Canada. Like the United States, Canada can help Mexico with training, exchanges, and invitations to exercises—showing initiative toward the shared goal of regional security.

The Bush Administration can improve relations by not treating Prime Minister Harper as if he were in Uncle Sam’s hip pocket. Instead of a gushy embrace, a warm handshake will do.

Consulting Mr. Harper’s government and keeping him informed of pending U.S. policy decisions is crucial. After all, good neighbors talk regularly. Infrequent communication soured relations between Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox—two conservative cowboys who never figured out how to speak frankly about how each could help solve the other’s problems. Bush kept Fox at arm’s length and thus open to poor advice on migration that eventually sidetracked U.S.-Mexico relations.

The Bottom Line

Canada shares a 4,000-mile border with the United States and is one of America’s top three foreign energy suppliers. It is the 8th largest economy in the world and is America’s largest commercial partner in an increasingly competitive, globalized marketplace.

There is no option other than to have close ties with this important neighbor. Stephen Harper’s election will draw us closer, but Washington can ensure a lasting friendship with progress on trade, multilateral relations, and security, and through respect and frequent consultation on matters involving our two nations.

Stephen Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. This article appeared in Impact Analysis, March-April 2006.

Stephen Johnson
About The Author Stephen Johnson
Stephen Johnson is senior policy analyst for Latin America in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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