Harper’s Free Trade Agenda Leaves Canada Out of Synch

Jennifer Jeffs, Senior vice-president at the Canadian International Council (CIC)

It is not surprising that the 5th Summit of the Americas was dominated by a focus on Barack Obama and hopes for improved U.S. attention to and participation in issues and concerns of Latin America and the Caribbean.

What is less clear is what this focus means for the concept of hemispheric relations, and the role for Canada in what appears to be an increasingly elusive political, economic, and social concept.

There is no denying that the Obama administration presages a new start to U.S. engagement with Latin America after the fractious and unhappy Bush era. However, one must not forget that, in fact, aside from the hopeful times of Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, rarely during the years since the end of the Second World War could U.S.-Latin American relations be said to have been “good”.

From the scandals involving political activities of U.S. companies such as the United Fruit Company in the 1950s and ’60s to the calls for a New International Economic Order (NIEO) and bitterness and resentment engendered by the Washington Consensus in the ’70s and ’80s to the surge of organized crime and immigration issues in the ’90s, U.S.-Latin American relations have been cyclical, too often marked either by tension or apathy.

The Clinton administration’s hemispheric FTAA was a respite and its agenda suited Canada very well—so well that it cannot seem to let go, even though the region has moved on.

After 9/11, U.S. diplomatic and economic relations with all its hemispheric neighbours took a back seat to its security concerns and the resulting disinterest has been pushed to the negative side by difficult social issues such as illegal migration and organized crime.

President Obama clearly saw the summit as an opportunity to listen to his counterparts both individually and as the groups that they have created. UNASR, CARICOM, MERCOSUR, these are more than economic groupings, they are political blocs. Thus the hopeful and progressive tone of hope for better U.S. dialogue and engagement with Latin America, with the Caribbean, and with the various groupings of countries in the region, left Canada to the side.

Had it chimed in with its powerful neighbour to better and more loudly articulate what have been Canadian trademark concerns for human rights, human security and co-operative engagement, this might have been less obvious. Instead, by putting the trade and anti-protectionist stance at the forefront of its concerns, Canada appeared oddly out of sync with the rest of the assembled group.

The focus on trade and warnings against as-yet-unmanifested protectionist tendencies were strangely dissonant with the overall mood as the leaders approached each other first cautiously, then—as television cameras attested—warmly as the hours went by.

Canada’s pledge to double its commitment to the IDB rather makes one squirm as it appears to be acting like the awkward kid who gets into the party because he is bringing the beer, but might not have been included had he not been able to afford to go to the beer store. It certainly did not feel like the Latin American and Caribbean leaders had come to hear a trade agenda, yet this seems to have been the most obvious Canadian offering, placing itself in a space oddly dissonant from the overall tone of the summit.

Canada’s entry into the OAS 30 years ago surely had a wider and deeper vision for our country’s engagement in the Americas than the one demonstrated this weekend. Canadian commitment to hemispheric issues such as development and governance, poverty and inequality, democracy promotion and human rights (both particularly salient and timely given the attention paid to Cuba this weekend), and environmental and energy co-operation through the participation of its citizens in academic exchanges, research programs, NGOs, and diplomatic missions is bigger and more embracing than the trade and finance agenda presented to our neighbours this weekend.

Furthermore, the agenda Canada brought to the summit table was also strangely out of tune with the generally pro-active and increasingly tangible and visible engagement of Canadian missions throughout the region with the issues that confront their host countries.

As is the case with its neighbours in the hemisphere, Canada’s current foreign policy focus is clearly set on the U.S.; the bilateral relationship is of utmost importance and relations with the countries south of it are taking a far back seat.

However, this tactic, which does not even appear to be a deliberate one of “wheel and spoke”, risks a more personal-level alienation of Canadian interest and interests in the region, rendering Canada at risk of becoming outsiders in our own hemisphere.

Jennifer Jeffs is senior vice-president at the Canadian International Council (CIC).

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