Obama in Canada

President Barack Obama’s visit to Canada on February 19th provided an opportunity to see what positions the world’s closest allies and trading partners may take on key foreign policy issues. Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s comments appear to indicate that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Below is an annotation of key foreign policy themes touched upon by the two leaders during their post-meeting press conference.

The Alliance

Obama: I love this country and think that we could not have a better friend and ally…I’m looking forward to this being the start of a continued extraordinary relationship between our two countries.

Harper: [Obama's] election to the presidency launches a new chapter in the rich history of Canada-U.S. relations. It is a relationship between allies, partners, neighbors, and the closest of friends; a relationship built on our shared values — freedom, democracy, and equality of opportunity epitomized by the President himself.

Obama and Harper’s comments are significant, given the recent track record of Canada-U.S. relations. For different reasons, both leaders have a stake in distancing themselves from the legacy of the Bush administration — Harper because he was characterized as “mini-Bush,” and Obama because he campaigned on a promise of change.

On issues pertaining to foreign policy and strategic orientation, the past eight years have seen unprecedented cooperation between the two countries despite occasional stylistic differences. As former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson put it, quiet but sustained integration between the two countries is understood as “the hidden wiring of the Canada/U.S. relationship.”

Days before the United States launched the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Canadian government of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien declared that Canada would not publicly support the war. Under pressure from the business elite and Canada’s far right-wing political party (then the Canadian Alliance, later to become the Conservative Party of Canada), Chretien soon changed course. His government wished the Bush administration “godspeed” in its push to oust Saddam Hussein from power. Following the invasion, Canada quickly helped legitimize the occupation by muting any criticism while quietly providing ongoing support.

Under a subsequent minority government led by Liberal leader Paul Martin, Canada launched a Canadian Ally campaign to raise congressional awareness in the United States of its ally’s role in the Global War on Terror. Continued under Harper once he assumed control of a minority government in January 2006, this campaign sought to “brief lawmakers on what Canada says is a radical transformation of the military…and increase in the defense budget.” Harper also continued the 3D (defense, development, diplomacy) foreign policy approach of his predecessor to deal with “failed and failing states” and to more effectively conduct counterinsurgency campaigns.

The challenge remains for Harper to shake the perception that he is a mere clone of former President George W. Bush. But given Obama’s penchant for reaching across the aisle Harper can, for now, remain secure that the Obama administration won’t seek to undermine him. At the first opportunity, however, the rejuvenated Liberal Party, with new leadership in the form of humanitarian hawk Michael Ignatieff, will seek to position themselves to resume power.

Afghanistan

Obama: [T]he precise reason that we’re doing a [strategic] review is because I think that over the last several years we took our eye off the ball, and there is a consensus…that there is a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.

There has indeed been a growing consensus since at least 2005 that the U.S.-led NATO occupation of Afghanistan has been facing a “deteriorating situation.” In April 2006, top U.S. officials were warning that the insurgency was “likely to worsen,” after insurgent attacks doubled in 2005.

Obama’s comment, however, is slightly misleading. His strategic review comes on the heels of prior strategic reviews undertaken by his predecessor. For one, the Afghanistan Study Group, chaired by General James Jones (Ret.), who would later be named Obama’s National Security Advisor, called for an increase in U.S. troop presence in January 2008. Canada, too, has previously conducted a strategic review. In October 2007, the Conservatives established the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan. Led by former Liberal Deputy Prime Minister John Manley, the commission was established to bring about an elite consensus on Canada’s role there.

Crucially, one of the key recommendations made in the final report was that the extension of the Canadian Forces mission in Southern Afghanistan past 2009 was “contingent on the deployment of additional troops by one or more ISAF countries to Kandahar…[numbering] about 1,000.”

At almost the exact same time as the Manley report was tabled, the United States announced that 3,200 soldiers would be redeployed from Iraq to Afghanistan, 2,200 of whom would be serving alongside the Canadians in the south. The Bush administration’s assurances enabled Canada’s mission to be extended to the end of 2011.

Obama: I ordered the [17,000] additional troops because I felt it was necessary to stabilize the situation there in advance of the elections that are coming up.

There is no guarantee that any amount of additional soldiers will add stability to Afghanistan. Obama neglected to mention that Afghanistan’s elections were supposed to take place in April. Due to the growing resilience of the insurgency, they have been postponed until at least August — leaving President Hamid Karzai in office unconstitutionally as of May, when his tenure ends — with no guarantees they won’t be further postponed or cancelled outright.

Obama’s (re)ordering of 17,000 troops is in addition to the combat brigade Bush sent. Canada’s Globe and Mail reported that plans are already underway for the United States to build an $850-million expansion of Kandahar Air Field in 2009, which “means space available for a minimum of 12,000 more personnel to stand alongside Canada’s troops in Kandahar.”

Obama: I certainly did not press the Prime Minister on any additional commitments beyond the ones that have already been made.

A great deal was made about this issue in the Canadian media, downplaying the fact that Canada is already committed to maintaining nearly 3,000 soldiers in the heart of the insurgency (in Southern Afghanistan) for nearly three more years, until the end of 2011.

Additionally, some reports indicate Canada, like Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom, may increase troop levels to coincide with the elections, and may entertain further commitments beyond 2011 at a later date. Indeed, the war might continue until 2014. Top U.S. General David McKiernan, who has called for 20,000 to 30,000 additional soldiers, recently asserted that the “surge” was not a short-term task, but one that could last “the next three to four or five years.”

Harper: “[I]t was just last year that we were able to get through Parliament a bipartisan resolution extending our military engagement in Afghanistan for an additional close to four years at that point.”

Harper disingenuously used the term “bipartisan,” forgetting that Canada has two other major political parties — the New Democratic Party (NDP) and Bloc Québécois — that both opposed extending the mission beyond the then-established departure date of 2009. However, it’s true that Canada’s role in Afghanistan has depended on a de facto coalition between the minority-governing Conservative and official opposition Liberal parties, as mentioned above.

Only weeks after Harper’s Conservatives secured a slightly larger minority government following federal elections last October, the Liberals, NDP, and Bloc attempted to form a surprise coalition that would take over government. As part of the coalition agreement, the NDP agreed to mute their opposition to the Afghan War. Harper was able to block the coalition’s attempted power-grab. By the time Parliament resumed in January, the coalition had all but dissolved, while the Liberal Party selected its hawkish leader Ignatieff, an early supporter of the Iraq War (for which he later issued a mea culpa). Since Parliament’s resumption in January, Ignatieff has signaled that the de facto Conservative-Liberal coalition on foreign policy is back on course.

Energy Security

Obama: [W]e are very grateful for the relationship that we have with Canada, Canada…being our largest energy supplier.”

Stephen Harper’s government has used the term “energy superpower” to describe Canada. As the largest supplier of oil to the United States, Canada has a certain amount of political leverage, especially as the United States attempts to reduce its dependency on foreign oil.

Strangely, the question of foreign energy dependency wasn’t raised during Obama’s visit, despite the subject’s equal applicability to both Canada and the United States. In fact, Canada is in the peculiar position of being both a major exporter and a major importer of oil. Both Canada and the United States are dependent on Iraqi, Venezuelan, and Saudi Arabian oil. Canadian oil doesn’t flow to Eastern Canada; pipelines predominantly flow north to south, rather than west to east.

Canada’s desire to see the “continuous flow of oil through the Straits of Hormuz” also helps explain Canada’s naval presence, alongside the United States, in the Middle East, as does the presence of numerous Canadian companies that have secured controversial Production Sharing Contracts in Iraq’s Kurdish region.

National Security

Harper: I just want to make this clear…the view of this government is unequivocal: threats to the United States are threats to Canada…There is no such thing as a threat to the national security of the United States which does not represent a direct threat to this country.

Obama: [W]e have no doubt about Canada’s commitment to security in the United States as well as Canada. Obviously we’ve got long-lasting relationships…there’s been extraordinary cooperation and we expect that that will continue.

Harper’s comments implicitly draw attention to the fact that Canada has, since 9/11, increasingly become a national security state in the mold of the U.S.

Following 9/11, Canada immediately committed to the Global War on Terror. Since then, Canada has spent unprecedented amounts on defense, intelligence, policing, and other security measures. Canada’s 3D policies mirror those of the United States. Domestically, this has included the creation of a Canadian department of homeland security, known as Public Safety Canada; the drafting of Canada’s first ever National Security Strategy; Canadian anti-terror laws that share similarities with the Patriot Act; and new capabilities that allow for domestic spying and intelligence-sharing with their U.S. counterparts.

Military Integration

Harper: What we can do…and what I’m sure President Obama will want to do…is to take that close relationship that is so deeply integrated when it comes to things like trade and military…We can continue to show how two countries can work together in ways that pursue global cooperation and integration to mutual benefit.

David Wilkins, Bush’s ambassador to Canada, once said that “No two militaries are more closely united than those of the United States and Canada.” Taking cues from important U.S. presidential and Pentagon directives, Canada’s political and military leaders have radically transformed Canada’s military in order to fight “irregular” wars or conduct “global counterinsurgency” operations well into the foreseeable future. In 2007, Canada finalized its first-ever counterinsurgency doctrine and expanded its covert Special Operations capabilities to previously unseen levels. The Canadian Armed Forces have never been so closely integrated with the U.S. military.

Canada’s last two Chiefs of Defense Staff (CDS, a position relatively equal to that of the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) have served on high-level military exchanges with the U.S. Army. The current CDS, General Walt Natynczyk, is one of three Canadian generals to have served on a one-year exchange as Deputy Commander, MultiNational Corps–Iraq, since the 2003 invasion. Currently, Canadian Brig. Gen. Nicholas Matern serves as Deputy Commander under Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin III in Baghdad.

The recent comments by Harper and Obama at their joint news conference indicate that close U.S.-Canadian military cooperation will continue well into the future.

Anthony Fenton is an independent researcher and journalist based near Vancouver, B.C., Canada, and contributes to Foreign Policy In Focus . He is currently completing a book on Canada-U.S. foreign policy integration and transformation, and can be reached at: fentona (at) shaw (dot) ca.