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Now the hard part: waiting for U.S. hints

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

The world - including Canada, of course - waits on Barack Obama.

As a courtesy and perhaps something more, the new President has signalled that he will visit Canada first among overseas countries. But Canada will have much more to ask of him than he of Canada.

It is startling, really, how much we in Canada are waiting for him, and how much we are dependent on his decisions. Our dependence, in fact, is enormous, and our margin for manoeuvring on key files is small, and made smaller by our own timidity.

On the great issue of climate change, we have essentially ceded control of our policy, or at least the most important elements of it, to the Obama administration. Canada is incoherent internally on this file. Yawning gaps exist among the provinces, and Stephen Harper's government is not even trying to bring Ottawa and the provinces together.

Instead, the Harper government is signalling it will try to join whatever cap-and-trade scheme the Obama administration develops and whatever vehicle emission standards it imposes on the auto sector. This wait-for-Obama approach will force coherence within Canada. It might also be useful for Canada and the U.S. (and Europe) to have a common climate-change position.

Canada could have at least tried to do something itself, but that timidity and internal incoherence blocked a cap-and-trade market and tougher vehicle emission standards. So we are essentially waiting for Mr. Obama to tell us what we can do, although the Harper government apparently does intend to offer the new President some ideas about North American co-operation.

The Canadian dependence has been camouflaged for public purposes by what is called an "energy and climate change" pact that the Harper government will propose to the Americans. Although details are scanty, the pact is really about trying to protect Alberta's tar sands from any U.S. environmental punishment.

The notion that Canada is offering itself up as a "secure and stable" supplier of energy isn't an offer at all, because it's already a fact.

The Americans would not be getting anything they do not already have, whereas Canada is looking for something it does not possess by way of assurances for the tar sands.

In Mr. Obama's inaugural address, he spoke of the need to get the U.S. economy moving again. His $800-billion stimulus (sorry, "recovery") package will go speedily through Congress. What it does for the U.S. economy, if anything, will have more impact on the Canadian economy than anything the Harper government proposes in its budget next week.

The same applies, broadly speaking, for the auto industry. Canada had to wait to see what was developing in the United States to assist the industry there, then unfolded a package here that is still being negotiated and that increasingly looks in both countries like a bridge loan to an orderly bankruptcy than a revival of General Motors and Chrysler.

It would be greatly tempting, and entirely in keeping with the deeply parochial nature of the Harper government, to prepare a list of bilateral economic issues to discuss with the new President. Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon epitomized that attitude when he said Sunday that we need to talk about "job creation, fighting protectionism and the energy and environment ... as well as the borders."

We're not talking about the governor of Illinois here, but the president of the United States. Sure, Mr. Obama is preoccupied with domestic issues; and, yes, Canada is his country's largest trading partner and a big supplier of energy. Neither of those essentials will change.

But he's also preoccupied with the Middle East, Iran, China, climate change, developments in Cuba, nuclear proliferation, Pakistan. Do we have anything to offer him, let alone say to his administration, on any of these and other major international issues? If so, it's hard to imagine what. If not, Canada will fast develop a reputation in his administration as the guest always placed at the far end of the table.

Canada could talk, of course, about Afghanistan, to which Mr. Obama will deploy additional U.S. troops and will ask NATO allies for more help. But, of course, our Parliament has already decided - subject to an unlikely change of mind - that Canadian troops are leaving Kandahar in 2011. We didn't wait for Mr. Obama on that one.

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