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A new era of co-operation

'Threats to the United States are threats to Canada,' Harper says after meeting with U.S. President and agreeing to work together on green technology

Globe and Mail: CAMPBELL CLARK - February 20, 2009

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OTTAWA — Barack Obama and Stephen Harper reset Canada-U.S. relations in three hours of meetings Friday, bending over backwards to dispel tension from the George W. Bush era and pledging to co-operate at the border and around the world.

Mr. Obama used a visit to a close neighbour to send a message that the U.S. wants to work in concert with allies – jumping in at a news conference to say he hadn't pressed for Canadian troops to stay in Afghanistan past 2011, and pledging to consult closely with Ottawa on strategy.

And more than ever, Mr. Harper, now dealing with a president who is popular in Canada, offered to do public business in close touch with the United States. He made a direct-to-Americans, we've-got-your-back pledge that Canada considers any security threat to the U.S. a threat to itself.

The 44th U.S. President arrived on snowy Parliament Hill to give a sunny wave to the thrilled crowd – urging Mr. Harper to join in – and stopped downtown to buy a BeaverTail treat six hours later on his way back to Air Force One.

At the end of a long day of meetings, the U.S. President and his 50-car motorcade took an unscheduled detour to buy souvenirs and talk to local residents

U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper reached an agreement Thursday to begin a clean-energy dialogue.

In between, Mr. Obama, clearly well-briefed on Canadian relations, hit the key notes: He spoke out against protectionism and in favour of co-ordinating auto-industry bailouts, said he's committed to ensuring trade flows smoothly across the border, and even declared, “I love this country.” The two leaders also announced the launch of a “Clean Energy Dialogue” to co-operate on developing technology to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, although it fell short of launching talks for the broad North American climate and energy pact Mr. Harper has proposed.

“I came to Canada on my first trip as president to underscore the closeness and importance of the relationship between our two nations, and to reaffirm the commitment of the United States to work with friends and partners to meet the common challenges of our times,” Mr. Obama said at the opening of a four-question news conference that stretched to 40 minutes.

“As neighbours, we are so closely linked that sometimes we may have a tendency to take our relationship for granted.”

Mr. Harper closed with his own suggestion that the two can do business together, on a two-way street.

“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,” he said. “And I'm convinced that by working with our country he will have no greater opportunity than to demonstrate exactly how that model can operate over the next four years.”

One potential sticking point was brushed aside by the U.S. President, who intervened to answer a question posed to Mr. Harper, about whether he would reconsider Canada's decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2011.

“I certainly did not press the Prime Minister on any additional commitments beyond the ones that have already been made,” he said, adding he only complimented Canada on its troops there, and the 108 who have fallen.

“There has been extraordinary effort there and we just wanted to make sure that we were saying thank you.”

Mr. Harper, however, dodged a direct answer on extending the mission, saying the principal goal is to train the Afghan army to take over.

With recession ravaging the U.S. and deepening around the world, the two leaders expressed joint commitment to global stimulus.

Mr. Obama, knowing the audience, not only cautioned against protectionism in a recession, but played down his desire to re-jig the North American Free Trade Agreement, reassuring “it can be done in a way that is not disruptive” to trade.

But it was on cross-border trade flows that the two leaders sent key signals.

Mr. Obama's Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, has ordered a review of security at the Canada-U.S. border – heightening Canadian concerns that U.S. security measures are clogging the flow of goods across the border.

Mr. Harper looked past Ottawa reporters to send a message to Americans: “Threats to the United States are threats to Canada.…”

“We as Canadians have every incentive to be as co-operative and alarmed about the threats that exist to the North American continent in the modern age as do the government and people of the United States. And that's the approach with which we treat the border.”

Mr. Obama responded with a signal that may have impact with his own officials, stressing the need to invest in “easing bottlenecks” and balance security concerns with an “open border.”

“We have no doubt about Canada's commitment to security in the United States as well as Canada,” he said.

On the environment, however, Mr. Obama stepped cautiously around Mr. Harper's calls for a broad, joint pact on greenhouse-gas emissions and energy. The two leaders announced a Clean Energy Dialogue, but it had a limited focus on sharing technology for things like capturing and storing carbon emissions – falling far short of launching a drive to a broad North American system for regulating emissions.

Mr. Obama said the U.S. has to first work out its own system at home, leaving Mr. Harper to suggest Canada might try to join when that's done.

“We'll be looking ourselves for our own sake at opportunities for harmonization to make our policies as effective as they can [be],” he said.

The important intangibles of the relationship – whether the two struck a bond – remain, of course, difficult to judge from outside.

Mr. Harper's communications director, Kory Teneycke, pointed out that the scheduled 10-minute, no-aides chat between the two leaders stretched to 33 minutes, calling it a “a nice way to start” the relationship.

However, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, who had his own 25-minute chat with Mr. Obama, noted there was little solid advance.

“I don't feel from what I heard that anything very substantial or substantive was agreed today,” he said in a CBC interview.

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