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A New Prime Minister Could Fix the Troubled U.S.-Canada Relationship

Oct 22, 2015

The relationship between the U.S. and Canada should be as placid as Lake Ontario on a calm summer day. The border is undefended. Their peoples seem like cousins. Each is the other's largest single trading partner. Yet there has been serious friction between the two neighbors in recent years--friction that might now be eased by the surprise election of a new Canadian Prime Minister.

Since winning power in 2006, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, more aligned politically with U.S. Republicans than with Democrats, amassed one grievance after another with his American counterparts. Harper wanted the Obama Administration's support for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would boost Canada's oil-rich economy by moving 800,000 barrels of oil-sands crude per day from Alberta into the U.S. He wanted a larger Canadian role in U.S. negotiations with Japan over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an enormous Pacific Rim trade deal. He wanted a more interventionist foreign policy approach in the Middle East and in Ukraine, which Obama resisted. At times U.S. Ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman found himself frozen out of meetings with senior officials in Harper's Cabinet.

That point is now moot. On Oct. 19, Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party ousted Harper's government in a sweeping election victory. Trudeau--the son of Pierre Trudeau, one of Canada's most successful Prime Ministers--will now enjoy a solid parliamentary majority, while Harper was left to resign as the leader of the repudiated Conservatives.

Obviously Canadians didn't vote in Trudeau just to please their American neighbors. Nearly a decade of Conservative rule by the often belligerent Harper left voters hungry for a candidate who could promise change. Though just 43 years old and relatively untested, Trudeau conducted an effective campaign, arguing that a slowing Canadian economy needed stimulus, not more of the Conservatives' austerity.

Harper's pledge to make Canada an energy superpower now looks foolish with low oil prices weighing on production of the country's high-priced oil-sands projects, while his party's condemnation of the "barbaric cultural practices" of Muslim immigrants alienated voters who value Canada's reputation for cultural tolerance. The upbeat Trudeau, by contrast, promised "sunny ways," as he said in his victory speech.

But if Trudeau's win was primarily about internal Canadian politics, he will make a difference in relations with Washington. Trudeau favors the Keystone pipeline but is much less eager than Harper to push a reluctant Obama to approve the project. The Obama and Trudeau teams will find common cause on climate change in the lead-up to a major U.N. summit in Paris at the end of the year. Despite reservations on the campaign trail about TPP, Trudeau is unlikely to push his party to reject the deal. Obama and Trudeau don't see eye to eye on everything--Canada's new Prime Minister has already pledged to end his nation's involvement in the bombing of ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, while offering more humanitarian aid in those countries. But the U.S.-Canadian conversation is about to get a lot friendlier.

During his nearly 10 years as Prime Minister, there were times when Harper seemed intent on making Canada more like the U.S. Though Harper was born and raised in Ontario, his political base was Canada's western provinces, particularly Alberta, which exerts a distinctly conservative pull on the nation's politics. Some of Harper's recent comments on the need for immigrants to adapt to mainstream Canadian society suggested he believed in the American "melting pot" philosophy of assimilation, rather than the "mosaic" approach, with its respect for cultural diversity, a distinction that Trudeau's father established in the 1970s as crucial to a changing Canada's identity.

The truth is, for all their similarities, the U.S. and Canada are politically different--and their relationship will be all the better for acknowledging it.

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