Are President Obama's policies at odds with Canadian interests?

A recent article published in Peace Magazine by Brian Adeba, writing for the Rideau Institute, analyzes President Obama’s policies on defence, disarmament, energy and continental trade, and their implications for Canada. 

While Canadian peace advocates may be wary of Obama’s focus on Afghanistan delaying the planned withdawal of Canadian troops in 2011, Adeba’s analysis provides numerous examples of how an Obama administration will advance multilateral solutions for disarmament, including strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). 

Canada After Bush

by Brian Adeba   
Peace Magazine, January-March 2009


When president-elect Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, he will be taking charge on a wave of great expectations, both in the United States and the rest of the world, despite the serious challenge of a downturn in the global economy. But even as Americans and others await a world without George W. Bush at the helm of the most powerful country in the world, political analysts will be keenly watching to see whether Obama lives up to the policy promises he made while campaigning for America’s top office, and judging the impact of his policies on the U.S. and the rest of the world.

By virtue of being the United States’ largest trading partner, as well as her NATO ally and a NAFTA member, Canada will feel the immediate impact of Obama’s policies. Canadian policy makers, civil society leaders and analysts will be watching especially closely Obama’s policies on defence affairs, disarmament, climate, energy and NAFTA.


As one of the lone voices who opposed Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, Obama favours withdrawing American troops from the Middle Eastern country and sending 15,000 soldiers to Afghanistan, which he has described as the real threat to the U.S. Supporting expectations that Obama will pressure Canada to extend its mission in Afghanistan beyond the 2011 deadline for withdrawal, the defence secretary Robert Gates wasted no time in hinting that the U.S. would like to see a continuation of the Canadian military presence.

“All I can tell you, as has been the case for a very long time: the longer we can have Canadian soldiers as our partners, the better it is,” Gates told reporters in December.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s office issued a later statement, declining an extension of the mission and affirming that a 2011 withdrawal is on schedule. While the issue seems closed for now, unexpected changes in the political arena might result in another request to extend the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. But Steve Staples, Director of the Rideau Institute, an Ottawa-based think-tank, says Canada should reject any requests or pressures to extend the mission in Afghanistan, where so far 103 Canadian soldiers have died since 2001.

“Obama can best contribute to peace in Afghanistan by supporting a negotiated end to the war, rather than sending thousands of troops to continue fighting it,” he says. “We should encourage him to change the U.S. approach in Afghanistan.”


On nuclear disarmament issues, Obama has promised to secure all loose nuclear materials in the world within four years, negotiate a ban on the new development of nuclear arms, and pursue “tough” talks with Iran without preconditions. For disarmament policy watchers in Canada, Obama appears on the whole to be a key supporter of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Erika Simpson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo and a researcher on nuclear issues, says these signs indicate that Obama is a president who favours radical nuclear disarmament.

“That means we may see progress on a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which Canada has signed and the United States has not signed,” says Simpson, adding that the Obama administration might also consider signing a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT), which Canada supports. The FMCT would prohibit production of fissile material for nuclear explosives without international safeguards. Since the FMCT was first broached in 1995, nations of the world have failed to agree on its terms, each pushing for its own interests to prevail. For instance, Russia, which uses uranium in its nuclear plants, has suggested that the agreement be limited to weapon-grade plutonium. The U.S. is concerned about verification under the FMCT, and under Bush refused to sign the treaty.

At its inception, the FMCT was also envisaged as a treaty that would provide some form of control for countries owning nuclear weapons outside of the NPT. Simpson says if the U.S. signs the FMCT, the move may spark a wave of ratifications from other countries, especially Russia and possibly Iran and North Korea, heralding a new age in nuclear arms control.

“The implications are extremely important if you are in favour of multilateral arms control, which Canada has long been a proponent of,” she says.

Canada, a country known for championing multilateralism, could also see one of its proposals to institutionalize the NPT come to fruition with support from the new president. The NPT currently meets every five years, and the next meeting is scheduled for 2010, when Obama will have been in office for slightly more than a year.

As well, under an Obama presidency there are hopes that NATO’s Strategic Concept, which insists that nuclear weapons are “essential” to the alliance’s defence strategy, could be re-examined at its 60th anniversary celebration in April 2009. The Strategic Concept has, on occasion, put Canada in an embarrassing situation. While it supports the NPT, in October 2007 Canada voted against a UN resolution asking nations to put their nuclear weapons off high alert status on the basis that it was against NATO’s Strategic Concept. Disarmament activists hope a re-examination of the concept will relieve Canada of such uncomfortable situations in the future.


In this sector, Obama has made some interesting comments that could have serious implications for Canada, says Tony Clarke, Director of the Polaris Institute, an Ottawa-based civic organization, and author of the book Tar Sands Showdown. Obama has said the United States is addicted to oil and it needs to wean itself from this addiction. Obama has proposed cutting 6.5 billion barrels a day from consumption by the year 2025 or 2030, and investing $150 billion on renewable energy alternatives over a 10-year period.

“We are the number one supplier of oil and natural gas to the United States. So we are locked-in in that sense,” says Clarke of the proposed reduction, which could see the U.S. cut down consumption by a third. Canada exports about 2.2 million barrels a day to the U.S. Conventional oil amounts to $1 million, while the remainder is tar sands crude.

Had it not been for the current global economic meltdown, Clarke says plans were afoot to increase tar sands crude exports to the U.S. by five times-about 5 million barrels-by 2015.

But most importantly, Clarke says Obama’s support for renewable energy alternatives and cutting down on consumption could eventually mean a reduction in imports of Canadian tar sands crude oil. In addition, there’s a growing movement in several states in the U.S. opposing tar sands crude-labelled “dirty oil”-because it can’t meet the low carbon emissions standards set by some states.
“Because Obama continues to support those initiatives, we will find that increasingly Canada’s export of tar sands crude won’t find a market in the U.S. When we put all that together, the export of tar sands crude is potentially in some trouble up the road,” says Clarke.


Another sticking point that defines U.S-Canada relations is NAFTA. While campaigning for office, Obama said he favours renegotiating the treaty, but under sharp criticism he later said he favours a NAFTA that “works for all.” In general, he does not support a framework that will fundamentally change the treaty.

“But just the fact that an American president is saying NAFTA needs to be renegotiated is important,” says Bruce Campbell, Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “I hope his changes will work for all and I would like to keep an open mind about his policies on NAFTA.”

Nevertheless, despite the flip-flop and an element of ambiguity in his NAFTA policy, Obama has made some interesting comments on making labour rights and standards enforceable, says Campbell. In addition, Campbell says Obama has expressed concern about the secrecy surrounding the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP).

But Stephen Clarkson, a senior fellow at the Waterloo-based Centre for International Governance Innovation, says enforcing labour rights is all about preventing the outsourcing of American jobs to Mexico, where weak trade unions and corruption have ensured poor labour standards. In addition, labour rights enforcement would likely target cheap undocumented labour in the U.S., but Clarkson says acting on this is quite complex because it involves changing legislation, which might take time.

“But in general, NAFTA is a minimal priority [for Obama] with the current economic crisis and Iraq to deal with,” says Clarkson.

Although not a lot is being said about it, Clarkson says the crisis in the auto industry in North America is a NAFTA issue that could have implications for Canada because of the American protectionism in it. The multi-billion bailout package for the auto industry, which Obama supports, is all geared toward protecting and sustaining jobs on American soil.

“The Congress documents talk about protecting jobs in the U.S and cutting them in Canada and Mexico,” says Clarkson. “All these free trade deals we have achieved so far will be proven to be a sham.”

While Canadians have good reason to celebrate the end of the Bush era, the Obama administration’s relationship with Canada is an unwritten page. It is clear that the political shifts in the U.S. will affect Canada greatly in the four years to come.

Tags: Afghanistan, Defence lobby