Analysis: US-Canada relations likely to improve

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TORONTO (AP) – U.S.-Canadian relations appeared to get off to a rocky start as soon as Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister last month.

Almost immediately, he said he would pull Canada’s six fighter jets from the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State group. Just weeks later, after Trudeau was sworn in, President Barack Obama rejected the Keystone XL Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline.

But appearances can be deceiving. Relations are expected to improve dramatically.

Trudeau and Obama share an ideological bond. Both are liberals who believe the government can be a force for good. They will be allies when world leaders and top diplomats come to Paris on Nov. 30 to hash out what organizers hope will be the biggest global deal ever to fight global warming.

And, from the Obama administration’s perspective, Trudeau is a vast improvement over his Conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper, who put himself at odds with the president by making Keystone the defining issue in relations between the neighbors.

Trudeau pointedly rejected that: “The Canada-U.S. relationship is much bigger than any one project,” he said after Obama announced his decision.

Trudeau has said repairing soured relations will be a top priority. “That has actually been a point of frustration for the Americans that I’ve spoken with, that all this government wants to talk about is a single pipeline project,” Trudeau said just days before beating Harper in the Oct. 19 election.

New Liberal Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc said the Keystone XL rejection removes a major irritant. “The American decision gives the new government an opportunity, frankly, to reset the relationship with the American administration, particularly on issues like working constructively against the global threat that is climate change,” he said.

Trudeau has said Canada’s days of being a less-than-enthusiastic actor on climate change are over. Under Harper, Canada pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, the emissions reduction program for rich countries, and Harper was perceived by environmentalists as more interested in protecting oil-rich Alberta than efforts to stem the effects of climate change.

“Canada and the U.S. will probably be singing from the same song book in Paris. For the first time in 10 years the Canadian government accepts the basic premise of climate change,” said Robert Bothwell, a Canadian history professor at the University of Toronto.

The top priority for the Obama administration will be to get Trudeau to support a trade deal with Pacific Rim countries, a legacy issue for the U.S. president. Harper’s government signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but it requires ratification in Parliament. The Liberal party has long favored free trade, and Trudeau is expected to back it.

Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, doesn’t believe Trudeau’s pulling Canada’s fighter jets from the mission against the Islamic State group will harm relations. Trudeau, he noted, could compensate by offering more troops to Canada’s training mission with the Kurds in northern Iraq.

“Obama will be more comfortable with Trudeau because they are both liberals,” Wiseman said.

Obama’s closet advisers have ties to Trudeau’s advisers. David Axelrod, who helped mastermind Obama’s 2008 campaign and offered advice to Trudeau’s team, tweeted congratulations to Trudeau’s top advisers for running a spectacular campaign and said “Hope beats fear.”

Obama’s seven-year reluctance to approve Keystone XL dominated his administration’s relationship with Harper. While Trudeau supported the pipeline, it was not a legacy issue like it was for Harper, who vowed Canada would become an energy super power. Harper’s home province of Alberta has the third-largest oil reserves in the world.

The pipeline was important to Canada, which needs infrastructure to export its growing oil sands production, but Canadians expected Obama to block Keystone XL after the long delay.

Harper would have criticized Obama had the rejection come under his watch. Conservative Member of Parliament Jason Kenney, a former Harper Cabinet minister from Alberta and the favorite to replace Harper as Conservative leader, did just that on Friday, calling the president’s rejection “insulting.”

Harper had angered the Obama administration by actively lobbying for the pipeline in the United States, including a trip to New York City where he lectured the U.S. president by saying he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Harper also previously said approving it was a “no brainer.”

Earlier this year, Harper cancelled a North American Leaders’ Summit in Canada that Obama was scheduled to attend. And Obama hasn’t made a bilateral visit to Canada since his first month in office.

Harper’s relationship with Bruce Heyman, Obama’s ambassador in Ottawa, was also frosty. Heyman has visited every province and territory in Canada but not the oil sands.

Allan Gotlieb, Canada’s former ambassador in Washington, said earlier this year that he’d never seen the relationship between the two countries so cool.

That should soon change.

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