Thursday, November 06, 2008

Obama Victory An Exciting Opportunity for Conservatives

No time like the present to shed the Bush millstone

If ideology were everything in politics, one wouldn't expect Canada's governing Conservative party to be very excited about the prospect of working with US President-elect Barack Obama.

Yet, John Ivison points out in a National Post Full Comment post, Canada's new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lawrence Cannon, is looking forward to working with Obama with a sense of cautious optimism.

Of the issues prompting caution upon Cannon is that of NAFTA, which Obama suggested he wanted to renegotiate in order to include labour and environmental standards. “I think at the outset we have to indicate that NAFTA has been beneficial to all trading partners. Sure, we acknowledge there are some irritants - that’s quite normal - but, as we’ve done in the past on issues like softwood lumber, we’ll deal with them in a constructive manner,” he explained.

Cannon attributes some of Obama's NAFTA-themed musings to the election, but isn't ready to take anything for granted.

“I think what is said in the course of an election, is said in the course of an election. Afterwards, things cool down a bit,” he added. “I don’t presume what the new American president will want to do though. We take note of what has been said.”

While it certainly could be expected that the Conservatives would prefer to be adjusting to a John McCain Presidency, a change in the leadership of the United States was assured during this election -- something the Conservatives have been preparing for.

"We have been putting in place our program to be able to make sure that when this change occurs on November Fourth," Cannon previously said. "We'll be well-positioned to continue our relations, our privileged relations, with the Americans."

Like any other Canadian, Cannon understands the importance of the Canada/US relationship.

"You know, 40 per cent of our economy depends on exports and roughly 70 per cent of those go to the United States. So we are very, very tied in with the United States," Cannon mused. Cannon also wrote off any notion that Obama doesn't understand Canada despite having rarely spoke of it during the election. "That’s not an indication of lack of knowledge. He’s a senator from a border state, which to me demonstrates he’s very knowledgeable."

Of course, it takes more than being from a border state to understand Canada. Obama's previous mention of the "President of Canada" does lead one to wonder about Obama's level of expertise.

Then again, Obama is known to be a fast learner. His Presidency should do little to harm Canada/US relations.

Cannon seems to be looking forward to working with Obama on the economy. "I think the issue that confronts Canada, as well as the United States and the world, of course, is the instability, the volatility in the marketplace," he insisted.

Obama does, however, introduce one wild card into Canada/US relations. Ironically, it's one to which he himself is a bit of a wild card -- that of the war in Afghanistan.

Cannon has already insisted that Obama's election won't change Canada's plans to withdraw from Afghanistan. "We welcome the renewed focus on Afghanistan on behalf of the president-elect," Cannon announced. "The U.S. interest won't change our opinion or intention to withdraw our forces in 2011."

Yet Obama remains very committed to the Afghanistan mission. While the ever-increasing unpopularity of the mission provided some election-time impetus for the Harper government's decision to set the withdrawal date, one has to wonder what effect the charismatic Obama's support of the mission may have.

If Obama calls on Canada to stay committed to the Afghan war, it may become a good deal more palatable to Canadians, who would vote for Obama in a pinch if they could.

But perhaps most important of all is that if Stephen Harper and the Conservatives can establish fruitful relations with the incoming Obama administration its opponents would no longer be able to profit politically by pushing it as close to the now-outgoing Bush administration as possible.

But a lot of work has to be done. Hopefully, Lawrence Cannon is up to that job.

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