US President Barack Obama, on his first trip abroad, sought to reassure free-trading Canadians that his country is not cultivating a protectionist streak as its economy falls apart and hemorrhages jobs.
“I want to grow trade and not contract it,” Obama said on Thursday during a quick visit to head off a chill in US relations with Canada.
The president stuck to his pledge eventually to seek changes in the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to increase enforcement of labor and environmental standards.
He said, however, that he intended to do so in a way “that is not disruptive to the extraordinarily important trade relationships that exist between the United States and Canada.”
His host, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said he might be willing to negotiate, but not by “opening the whole NAFTA and unraveling what is a very complex agreement.”
Canada is the US’ largest trading partner, and with US$1.5 billion in trade between the two nations, they have the largest trading relationship in the world.
Harper sounded a similar warning on a “Buy American” clause that Congress added to the US$787 billion economic stimulus package that Obama signed this week.
The provision requires that US iron, steel and other manufactured goods be used for public buildings and other public projects paid for under the bill. The final language makes clear, however, that the policy must not violate US obligations under existing international trade agreements, including NAFTA.
“We expect the United States to adhere to its international obligations,” Harper said. “I can’t emphasize how important it is that we do that.”
Obama’s seven-hour visit north of the border was marked by throngs of Obama-happy crowds and an eager welcome from Harper. The Conservative leader had been close to former US president George W. Bush, personally and on policy. He made clear with a few subtle jabs backward that he was casting his and his country’s lot now with the vastly more popular Obama.
“As we all know, one of President Obama’s big missions is to continue world leadership by the United States of America, but in a way that is more collaborative,” Harper said, an apparent reference to Bush’s go-it-alone diplomatic style.
“We now have a partner on the North American continent that will provide leadership to the world on the climate change issue, and I think that’s an important development,” he said.
Differences between the two countries also came into view. On trade as well as other topics, Obama came armed with reassurances, while Harper offered minilectures, albeit gently delivered.
On the seven-year-old Afghanistan war, for instance, the Canadian leader said NATO and US forces fighting the Taliban insurgency are not “through our own efforts going to establish peace and security in Afghanistan.”
With Obama’s administration undertaking a broad review of the US strategy there, Harper suggested that any new policy “have the idea of an end date, of a transition to Afghan responsibility for security and to greater Western partnership for economic development.”
Canada, which has lost more than 100 soldiers in Afghanistan, is pulling out its 2,500 combat forces from the volatile south in 2011.
Obama announced earlier this week that he is sending 17,000 more US troops to Afghanistan to augment the 33,000 already there. It was just over half the increase that US commanders have requested, and Obama left the door open to additional increases once the strategy review is finished in late March.