- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2001

President Bush would not have gotten his vote, but Canadian Prime Minister Chretien finds a hand extended to him anyway as he becomes the first foreign leader to meet with the new president today. The partnership is worth strengthening for two reasons: defense and trade. The two politicians must come to the table prepared to be worlds apart politically though.

At home, Mr. Chretien is a known socialist who has just started his third term amidst challenges to his leadership from within his own Liberal Party. He has ruled Canada with an autocratic hand, making even insignificant votes in their parliament votes of confidence in the government. Questions about the prime minister's involvement in a financial scandal involving his lobbying of a federal bank for a hotel in his jurisdiction aren't helping his power base either. As for safeguarding his country, he has strong reservations about national missile defense (NMD), a system that destroys long range missiles from overseas before they reach the United States or Canada.

By contrast, Mr. Bush wants to stamp out any socialist tendencies from tax and Medicare policies left over from the Clinton administration. Rather than playing the autocrat, he has been content to surround himself with people who have been proven leaders in America's foreign, economic and defense concerns. The most scandalous act affecting the new administration doesn't involve shady financial deals but his choice of the religious and morally upright John Ashcroft for attorney general. National missile defense was a major plank of Mr. Bush's campaign platform.

Though the one thing both leaders have in common is strong support for free trade, today's task will be to start an exchange to knock down barriers between the two countries that have been built during the past few years. Mr. Chretien wants to pressure Mr. Bush to end high European and American farm subsidies, which have hurt sales of Canadian goods abroad. He will also discuss a softwood lumber agreement between the United States and Canada, which will expire in March. The Canadian minister for international trade is pushing to dissolve the agreement, which places quotas on Canada's exports of lumber to protect U.S. foresters.

As Mr. Chretien seeks to negotiate new trade advantages, he must not forget that the United States buys nine-tenths of Canada's exports. It would be in his favor to keep it that way. This will mean compromise as well as a recognition of all his country already receives from the United States, both in trade and defense.

Canada's defense budget is now almost 1 percent of its GDP. Yet Canada enjoys all the benefits of having the strongest military force next door to protect it as well. China, India and Russia are worried about NMD, which is not an offensive, but a defensive system. If foreign nuclear powers are worried about a system that would prevent their missiles from reaching us, Canada has reason to question their concerns as well.

President Bush is reaching out to Mr. Chretien today in good faith that a partnership with Canada is worth strengthening for the benefit of both nations. The Canadian leader would be well-advised to make the most of this opportunity.

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