Obama talks trade in Canada
He treads lightly on thorny issues such as energy
OTTAWA - President Obama courted warmer relations with America's northern neighbor yesterday, declining to ask war-weary Canada to do more in Afghanistan, promising that he won't allow protectionism to creep into US trade policy, and talking reassuringly around thorny energy issues.
Crowds in the snowy Canadian capital cheered Obama's seven-hour visit, his first outside US borders as president, and he returned the compliment with a quick stop at an indoor market where he delighted shopkeepers by picking up cookies and souvenirs for his daughters.
"I love this country and think that we could not have a better friend and ally," Obama said earlier as he appeared side by side with Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada at gothic Parliament Hill.
Harper in turn rolled out the red carpet for the new president, saying that Obama's election "launches a new chapter in the rich history of Canada-US relations."
The Conservative leader had been close to President George W. Bush, personally and on policy. But he made clear that he was casting his and his country's lot now with the vastly more popular Obama. "As we all know, one of President Obama's big missions is to continue world leadership by the United States of America, but in a way that is more collaborative," Harper said, an apparent reference to Bush's go-it-alone diplomatic style.
Still, rhetorical niceties aside, there are some sharp differences between the United States and its largest trading partner and biggest supplier of oil. On several topics, where Obama offered reassurances, Harper offered mini-lectures, albeit gently delivered.
On the seven-year-old Afghanistan war, for instance, the Canadian leader said that NATO and US forces fighting a resurgent Taliban insurgency are not "through our own efforts going to establish peace and security in Afghanistan." With Obama's administration undertaking a broad review of the US strategy there, Harper suggested that any new policy "have the idea of an end date, of a transition to Afghan responsibility for security, and to greater Western partnership for economic development."
Canada, which has had more than 100 troops killed in Afghanistan, plans to withdraw its 2,500 combat troops out of the volatile south by 2011.
Obama, who announced earlier this week that he is sending 17,000 more US troops to Afghanistan to augment the 33,000 there, said unprompted that he had not asked the prime minister for any more Canadian commitments. "We just wanted to make sure that we were saying thank you," he said.
On trade, Obama stuck to his campaign pledge to seek changes eventually in the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement to increase enforcement of labor and environmental standards - but said he intended to do so in a way "that is not disruptive to the extraordinarily important trade relationships that exist between the United States and Canada."
Harper said he might be willing to negotiate, but not by "opening the whole NAFTA and unraveling what is a very complex agreement."
He sounded a similar warning on a "Buy American" clause that Congress added to the $787 billion economic stimulus package. "We expect the United States to adhere to its international obligations," Harper said. "I can't emphasize how important it is that we do that."
Obama promised that the United States would do just that and declared, "Now is a time where we have to be very careful about any signals of protectionism."
Harper said he was pleased that Canada now has a North American partner to help provide leadership on climate change, and Obama said wealthy countries such as the United States and Canada must take leadership roles on the issue.