North American foreign ministers adopt new tone ahead of Quebec City meeting

When the foreign ministers of North America last met, they all agreed on the military mission against ISIS, sang the praises of a yet-to-be-finalized TPP trade deal and held out some hope for the Keystone XL pipeline. What a difference a year makes.

Security, energy and trade to figure prominently on agenda, but times have changed

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with their Mexican counterpart in Quebec City on Friday. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool/Associated Press)

When the foreign ministers of North America last met, they all agreed on the military mission against ISIS, sang the praises of a yet-to-be-finalized Trans-Pacific Partnership and held out some hope for the Keystone XL pipeline.

What a difference a year makes. 

The foreign ministers meet today in Quebec City, but last year's federal election in Canada has changed the dynamic when it comes to the fight against ISIS and the TPP.

Whereas former Conservative foreign affairs minister John Baird brought his government's strong support for both issues to the meeting, Liberal Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion will be expressing his government's trepidation about the trade deal.

It's doubtful Dion will need to reiterate the country's position on the military mission against ISIS, as his boss, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, made it clear to U.S. President Barack Obama last November on the fringes of the APEC summit in Manila, Philippines.

Just before that meeting, it was Obama himself who snuffed any hope of the cross-border Keystone XL pipeline project moving ahead in the foreseeable future.

Moves and consequences

Laura Dawson heads up the Canada Institute in the Washington, D.C.- based Wilson Center. She doubts there will be any sort of retaliation of consequence from the U.S. over the issues, but says it has been noted.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion, right, Mexico's Foreign Affairs Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu, centre, and U.S. Secretary of States John Kerry, left, walk on the Plains of Abraham at the North American foreign ministers meeting Friday in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

"I'm really hearing and feeling a sense of disappointment in the United States," she said in a recent interview with CBC News. "[The Americans] are expecting more from Canada, and withdrawing air support is not what they need at this time."

When it comes to the new government's reticence over the TPP, Dawson expects U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to put at least some public pressure on Canada to stick with the deal.

However, Dawson believes any such appearance of strong-arming would almost certainly be intended for Kerry's audience back home in the U.S. Congress and Senate.

"That pressure is required to reflect back on the United States because it is their congressional and their legislative process which, I think, is the most hung up [in adopting the TPP] right now," Dawson said.

Harper postponed leaders' meeting

Nonetheless, all indications are this is set to be a cordial meeting — a chance to continue building on the new tone.

Because, as we have seen, agreement doesn't guarantee much.

The last time the leaders of the three countries met was in early 2014. Last year's planned meeting was postponed by then prime minister Stephen Harper, but never rescheduled.

That is something Dion isn't afraid to call a mistake.

"That's not something we can accept — so we will catch up in our relationship with the United States and Mexico," Dion said in a speech on Thursday.

"United States and Mexico wanted, for a while, to engage us on environment and energy," he said. "We want to do that — so that, also, is another change."

This time, instead of pipelines, the trio is set to talk clean energy — a key plank in the Liberal election platform and something Obama has keenly embraced. This week, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna reiterated her government's promise to invest $300 million more in the sector.

The foreign ministers' job is to set the scene for the main act: the meeting of the leaders. No date or time has been set for that, but observers expect that to be announced soon.

Obama now has less than a year left in office. 

While reviews of him at home as he wraps up his term as commander-in-chief are mixed, he remains a popular figure internationally, including in Canada.

If Trudeau wants to embrace that, the opportunities are running out.

Trudeau will be in Washington in March for a state dinner — the first Canadian prime minister invited to such an event since Jean Chrétien in 1997.

With fewer than 350 days left in Obama's final term, a "Three Amigos" summit in Canada may be the Trudeau government's only chance to host Obama on Canadian soil while he's still president.