President Barack Obama's first international trip will be to Canada on Feb. 19. This announcement wasn't a big surprise. Most presidents have followed this routine, with the notable exception of George W. Bush's 2001 visit to Mexico.
Although many Canadians were electrified by Obama's victory last November, there has also been understandable concern with respect to the new president's agenda. Even though Canadians had a love-hate relationship with President Bush, they knew he supported strong Canada-U.S. trade relations. When it came to Obama, there was a troubling protectionist cloud that seemed to hover over his campaign.
Obama mused about re-examining the North AmericanFree Trade Agreement during the Democratic primaries. NAFTA is a critical trade deal for Canada, and any changes could have had a disastrous effect on the country's economic fortunes.
A diplomatic memo leaked to the press ultimately indicated this would not be the case. Yet the revelation has not completely eased the concerns of Canadian economists, politicians, and others. They are worried that other important Canada-U.S. trade deals involving automobiles and softwood lumber could be targeted by the Obama administration, leading to devastating economic changes for individual investors, businesses and the job market.
It's up to Obama and his senior officials to ease this tension by proving his White House supports existing trade deals with Canada - and recognizes the need to establish new ones.
The booming oil sands industry could be an important first step. The three provincial oil sands locations could recover 173 billion barrels of crude bitumen. Obama wants energy independence from the Middle East, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper recognizes that oil sands development "is pretty important…to North American energy security." A Canada-U.S. agreement on the oil sands could therefore have a lasting political, economic and environmental benefit for both countries.
Meanwhile, there has been some concern in Canada about Obama's position on the war on terror. While most left-leaning Canadians favor the gradual withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and obviously aren't opposed to Obama's plan to establish a more positive international image for the U.S., even they wouldn't support meetings with either totalitarian leaders or terrorist organizations without preconditions.
As a former speechwriter for Prime Minister Harper, I can certainly attest to this sentiment on the part of old colleagues and senior Conservative Party staff members. While Obama said these types of discussions would only occur "at the appropriate time and with the appropriate preparation," the Harper Government would never support negotiations with countries that wish to destroy democratic freedoms and values.
So, it's also up to Obama and his senior officials to ensure that his White House will have neither truck nor trade with rogue leaders and terrorist organizations. Furthermore, it would be wise for Obama to intensify his support for the war on terror.
"It's unclear Obama is going to do that."
In a recent CBS News interview with Katie Couric, the new president made this reassuring comment about terrorist groups: "I'm confident that we can keep them on the run, and ensure that they cannot train terrorists to attack our homeland." And with respect to Osama bin Laden, he said: "My preference obviously would be to capture or kill him. But if we have so tightened the noose that he's in a cave somewhere and can't even communicate with his operatives, then we will meet our goal of protecting America."
At the same time, Obama is removing elements of the Bush White House's strong anti-terror legislation that has kept the United States safe since September 11. He plans to close Guantanamo Bay, prevent the torture of suspected terrorists, and would only fight the war on terrorism "in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals." The Harper government, which worked with the Bush White House to enhance North American safety and security, will likely not be pleased with many of these soft-on-terror positions.
There are strong ideological differences between President Obama and Prime Minister Harper, but both leaders want to do what is best for their countries. When they finally meet, let's hope it's the beginning of a friendly and productive relationship - safety and economic security in North America depend on Obama's willingness to put prudence ahead of ideology.
Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.