Harper flops with solo act on trade

Annette Hester, CIGI Senior Fellow and CIC Research Associate

The recent Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago will be hailed in the future as the watershed moment of change in the relations between the United States and Latin America, but the same cannot be said for Canada.

What emerged from the discussions, which took place behind closed doors, was that while Barack Obama took time to listen and embrace a broad agenda, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s focus on trade set Canada on a solo course. The consequences for Canada’s position in the hemisphere will likely be far-reaching — including the prized bilateral dealings with the U.S.

Talk of integration from Arctic to Antarctic, the hallmark of the Clinton years, is gone. In its place the U.S. deftly positioned itself at the centre, with the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the Central American Integration System (SICA), and the Caribbean Community (Caricom) as separate interlocutors.

Mexico and Canada were treated as special partners, but even in the NAFTA context, they are very much two bilateral relationships. In fact, with few exceptions, Canada’s relations with the region are bilateral, already a reflection of this fragmentation.

This summit could have been an opportunity to reach out and reposition Canada, especially given the prevailing attitudes. After the anti-U.S. confrontation that marked the last summit in Mar del Plata, most leaders came to Trinidad prepared to help ensure that harmony would prevail. And they succeeded.

Undoubtedly Obama’s conciliatory attitude was paramount for the summit’s success. But so was the intermediation of other leaders, particularly Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The trust he has earned from his colleagues has turned him into a key partner for Obama in the region.

In contrast, in spite of Stephen Harper’s close relations with the U.S. president, who at one point quipped “I take tips from Canada on a lot of things,” and the fact that Canada was the only country to actually deliver any new money — a whopping $4 billion for the InterAmerican Development Bank — the prime minister has yet to leverage any of this to Canada’s advantage. In fact, Harper seems to have missed the zeitgeist with his solo turn at the summit.

Understanding what is of interest to the U.S. should be a given to any Canadian prime minister. Yet, even though the Summit of the Americas is indelibly linked to the failed negotiations of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a key initiative of the Clinton administration, Harper insisted on making the trade agenda the central issue for Canada at this summit, rubbing salt into a wound.

He was the only leader to mention it in his remarks, and when questioned by reporters on being at odds with others, he argued he was in “the majority,” and that “outside of a small bloc,” all the leaders were free-traders, and shared his views. Apparently it didn’t occur to the prime minister that others would carry on a trade agenda — as the U.S., Brazil, and others did — quietly in the background.

It was, however, the fact that the prime minister failed to embrace the offer made by Barack Obama to join him in launching an Energy Partnership for the Americas that will most impact Canada. This was an opportunity to come to the aid of the U.S. president by deflecting all the attention Cuba was getting, onto an issue that is in Canada’s own strategic interests. It would have shown that the prime minister does believe Canada is in an equal position to the others in the hemisphere, and open doors for new alliances. Instead, it was Mexican President Felipe Calderon who suggested establishing a hemisphere-wide electrical grid and a regional biofuels transportation network. And there is word that it was Chile that offered to host a renewable energy institute.

This would have been the perfect moment to extend the U.S.-Canada Clean Energy Dialogue to others in the hemisphere. For instance, Canada could take the example of the Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority — where a public-private partnership left control of discoveries in the government’s hands — and suggest the creation of a Western Hemisphere Energy and Environmental Research Initiative.

The alternative, going it alone, will mean accepting that the U.S. will decide, and Canada will follow.

While the summit is gone, and opportunities missed, there is still time. The next meeting on the energy partnership proposal will take place in Peru in June, and once more, Canada is participating and providing financial assistance to the gathering. This would be the perfect moment to go beyond financial contributions and lead with ambition and a strong voice.

Annette Hester is senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo. The opinions expressed here are her own.


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