by Chantal Hébert
Of the four most recent U.S. presidents to have addressed a joint session of the Canadian Parliament, Barack Obama has the least political capital left to spare to translate words into actions. In the dying months of his presidency, he is down to small change.
Richard Nixon, who addressed Parliament in 1972, was around for another two years after his speech. Before he succumbed to the Watergate scandal, he pulled American troops out of Vietnam.
Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton delivered speeches early on in their first mandates. Reagan came back for an encore at a crucial time in the negotiations that led to the initial free-trade agreement (FTA) between Canada and the United States.
By comparison, Obama won’t be around to turn into reality the tripartite agreements concluded by Canada, Mexico and the United States on Wednesday.
To be fair, for all the glitter that attends such presidential visits to Canada, it is a rare one that has lasting geopolitical impact on the rest of the planet or, for that matter, the national scene.
In my time, I can mostly think of only one.
The 1985 Shamrock Summit – so dubbed because it brought together two leaders of Irish descent, Reagan and Brian Mulroney – led to the creation of what is today the North American free trade zone.
But that meeting took place at a time when trade between the United States and Canada was at the heart of the conversation and not yet linked with domestic security and terrorism issues.
Obama was the first U.S. president to speak to Parliament since 9/11 and also the first in more than 20 years – the longest hiatus by far between presidential addresses. Over that period, Canada has become a smaller dot on the White House radar and possibly never smaller than over Obama’s tenure.
Stephen Harper has been taking flak for that and some of it is deserved.
His government went out of its way to make its displeasure over Obama’s decision to block the Keystone pipeline known to those associated with his administration – starting with the American diplomats who toil in the federal capital.
There is some amount of payback in the presidential affection Justin Trudeau has been showered with since he became prime minister.
But it would be premature to confuse the whims of an outgoing president with a guarantee of a more productive Canada-U.S. relationship going forward.
The decline in the already modest Canadian influence in Washington is at least partly structural in nature. And the relationship could become rockier even if Donald Trump does not win the presidency next November. Take free trade, the joint adventure Mulroney and Reagan set Canada and the U.S. on three decades ago and that has since come to include Mexico.
For the first time since the initial FTA’s inception, it is treated as a liability by both of the presumptive nominees in the American presidential election.
The Democrats have long had a love-hate relationship with free trade arrangements. Obama mused about renegotiating NAFTA when he was first campaigning for the presidency.
But this week, Donald Trump broke with pro-trade Republican history with an ad hominem denunciation not only of the North American free trade arrangements but also of the deal agreed to in principle last fall by the 12 countries of the Pacific zone.
Trump called the yet-to-be-ratified Trans-Pacific Partnership “a rape” of the United States. Hillary Clinton has also sided against Obama’s parting trade deal.
The latter did not prevent the outgoing president from giving his last North American leaders’ summit the flavour of a day in the life of an adversarial U.S. presidential campaign. Trump was never named but he was in the subtext of a good many of the public exchanges. That Obama used his podium to take on some of Trump’s rhetoric while his Canadian and Mexican partners looked on benignly speaks to unusual nature of the campaign for his succession.
The U.S.’s next-door neighbours normally steer as clear as possible of American presidential politics as do visiting presidents who are to soon retire.
A word in closing on the counter-Brexit message this week’s summit is deemed to have sent to the rest of the world. Before getting carried away by that assertion, consider that none of the so-called Three Amigos would contemplate signing up for a fraction of the political integration involved in being part of the European Union.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright: 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services