Obama off to Canada to Tighten Ties

Article excerpt

The economic crisis, a highly contentious trade issue, and energy will dominate the agenda as Barack Obama makes his first foreign visit as president, meeting with Canada's prime minister in a whirlwind tour Thursday.

President Obama hinted Tuesday that he hopes to find continued military support from Stephen Harper in Afghanistan beyond 2011. But if his conciliatory tenor - evident in a television interview aired in Canada in advance of the meeting - is any indication, the president appears to be using his maiden foreign visit to send a broader diplomatic signal: America wants to rebuild its alliances.

At the very least, the meeting with Canada's prime minister is expected to set the tone for relations for years to come. And although the Canadian leader's ideological views are more closely attuned to Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, the shared economic problems of both nations are likely to bridge partisan divides, analysts say.

"They're in the same boat, facing the realities of the world situation, so they will certainly be working together," says Colin Robertson, an expert in Canada-US trade relations. "The focus here for Obama - as it has been at home - is jobs. It's an integrated economy. We don't just trade things anymore. We make things together, so the emphasis is going to be on how we make things better together."

World's largest trading partnership

The survival of the Big Three automakers for example, who asked the US federal government for an additional $14 billion in bailout money this week, is just as important to Canada because the companies all operate major plants in Ontario, the country's manufacturing heartland. General Motors recently announced plans to cut 47,000 jobs globally, but the company's 11,000 workers in Canada appear to have been spared the axe.

The two countries are not only old friends, they're also business partners, with bilateral trade topping $500 billion yearly. "It's the largest trading relationship in the world," says Denis McDonough, US deputy national security adviser.

The president's stopover, scheduled to last six hours, will include a working lunch and a joint press conference by the two leaders, as well as a meeting between the president and Michael Ignatieff, a former Harvard University professor and the new leader of Canada's main opposition party. President Obama's delegation, which includes top advisers for security, the economy, and energy, reflects the journey's emphasis.

Although the two leaders are likely to find common ground on many economic issues, the controversial "Buy American" clause attached to the $787 billion economic stimulus plan signed into law by the president Tuesday has been playing badly in Canada. In recent weeks, Prime Minister Harper has said he wants to ensure that it does not lead to protectionist measures that would squeeze Canadian steel and iron manufacturers. In the wake of intense lobbying, lawmakers in the US added the caveat that the provision could not violate international trade agreements, including WTO and NAFTA pacts. …