What Barack Obama wants from Canada

Jeremy Kinsman on Barack Obama's Canada briefing notes.

The scene: the Oval Office. The participants: Barack Obama, president of the United States and two senior advisers, Ret. Gen. James Jones, head of the National Security Council and former Harvard University president Larry Summers, director of the National Economic Council.

The subject: why are we visiting Canada?

"OK, General, catch me up. Why are we going to Ottawa this week?"

Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Adviser, Ret. Marine Gen. James Jones (right). (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

"Mr. President, it's a neighbourhood story, to show we can manage things in our own near-abroad before we tell Putin or Pakistan or the Palestinians to work out their differences peacefully."

"O.K. But we don't have much in the way of differences, do we? I hear they're all Democrats up there. They've had Hillary's national health plan for years."

"That's right. But their prime minister is a right-wing guy. His people rooted for McCain."

"So how'd he get elected if most people are like us?"

"He's got a minority government, Mr. President. Can't get past 37 per cent but that's enough to keep him around.

"He is smart and recent Liberal leaders have been losers. Now they've got a philosopher-king, Michael Ignatieff, whom Larry probably hired at Harvard —"

"—Yeah, we did a little holiday thing in Europe last year with our wives."

"But we shouldn't get concerned by their inside stuff, Mr. President. You didn't pick Ottawa for the first trip because Stephen Harper's going to be your buddy. We picked Canada because it's there."

Not our problem

"Larry, what are the economics here? What's the deal?"

"Mr. President, Canadians depend on the U.S. market. But with it tanking, they hear protectionist noises in Congress and Homeland Security talking about bulking up the border. So they are getting a little panicked.

Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University and the new head of the U.S. National Economic Council. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

"Then they hear us calling their oil dirty. Harper's from oil-sands country, Alberta, tight with Texas."

"So what's our line?"

"Mr. President, on trade, you say they're not our problem. They are worried sick our new infrastructure projects will bar their stuff.

"But in return for exempting them, get them to act like grown ups on international trade issues where they hide in the weeds. They do protectionism — on chickens, ice cream, dairy products — that would make our cotton farmers blush.

"On the border, the Homeland Security monster has to be fed, at least for now. But we can make it smarter for the Canadian side without you being called soft.

"Second, say we'll work together as our stimulus packages kick in. We have to anyway, our auto industries are integrated.

"Harper just came in with a political Christmas-tree budget with something for everyone, big deficits and forecasts that the IMF says are way too rosy, which is how they've been all last year.

"He's going to have problems and you can make a gain here just by showing you're listening to him. Let's set up a structure for that.

"Climate change? Tar sands oil is dirtier, maybe 15 per cent more carbon. But the good news is that it's in North America, not the Persian Gulf or Venezuela.

"Harper was a climate-change denier, sounded like Bush, saying technology would have the answers. But they're spending next to nothing on it, waiting to see what we do.

"Make clear they have to get their process cleaner. Let's create a big-picture, cross-border energy-security carbon committee with Stephen Chu over at Energy — get California in, too. That will help put pressure on the car companies."

What can Harper do for me?

"OK, we can help them feel better, set up some serious consultations. But what can Harper do for me in the rest of the world, General?

"I said in the campaign we're about diplomacy and multilateralism first. Canadians count at the UN, did the Criminal Court, disarmament, peace initiatives. They could help with Russia, couldn't they? Plus, we need adults in the Middle East. Could they put boots on the sand on the Gaza border, if George Mitchell can get that far?"

"Maybe, Mr. President. But these aren't the same guys that did all that UN stuff. They sound more like the Wall Street Journal these days, don't get the UN, pretty much dumped Africa, see a black and white world — Russia, China, bad. Israel's right all the way. Georgia should be in NATO yesterday. All the stuff we're trying to nuance.

"So, if you're looking for help with Putin or Hu Jintao, you'd be better off with Sarkozy or Merkel.

"Harper's tried to ramp up some Canadian influence in Latin America to help Bush. But we need someone who can coax better news from Chavez and the Castros."

"Can they help us with Afghanistan at least, General?"

"Not directly. As Harper told you on your call, they've lost over a hundred people fighting Taliban in Kandahar and spent billions on development fumes.

"After four years there, their army is chewed up, the war is unpopular. So they're pulling out in 2011. But no one in NATO will stand up and relieve them in what is supposed to be a NATO mission.

"Of course, we're going in, but our 30,000 surge needs support, or yours will be the U.S. surge that fails, Mr. President.

"The Canadians won't stay, at least in any real number — they've done their duty. But you can probably get them to raise hell in NATO. If the Europeans don't ante up, it's too bad for Afghanistan — and too bad for NATO, big-time. It will even be too bad for us.

One last thing

"There's one other discussion point, Mr. President, the Arctic."

"The Arctic? Sounds too close to Sarah Palin. What's up? Polar bears in danger? My daughters are on that case.

"I tell you, there are winter days in Chicago they'd be right at home."

"Correct, sir, the Arctic's melting. But it's more than that. We're talking about mineral wealth on the seabed.

"Unless we get together with Canada and Russia and the Scans on a how-to, there will be a real mess, people competing and the ecology paying the price.

"Canada has big differences with our navy over who goes where, but we ought to work that out.

"It would be an example of how neighbours should behave to hold up to Putin and the Ukrainians and our impulsive Georgian friend. Maybe even to the Miami Cubans."

"Well, I'm supposed to be the hopes and dream guy but Miami may be one hope too many. OK, I get it and I see how to say it — this relationship is a U.S. priority, big-picture important. We're partners. Let's make it work."

"Thank you, Mr. President."