Toronto Star (Canada)
August 11, 2009

If Prime Minister Stephen Harper hoped to wring an expression of sympathy from U.S. President Barack Obama on the troublesome "Buy America" issue at the Three Amigos summit in Guadalajara yesterday, he must have left sadly disappointed.

Obama did tip Harper a backhanded compliment for raising U.S. protectionism "every time" they meet. The president also mused that "there may be mechanisms" through which provinces and states can harmonize cross-border procurement policies. But beyond that, he gave no ground.

Canadians should keep the Buy America provisions of Washington’s $787 billion stimulus program "in perspective," Obama retorted. He shrugged off worries that it amounts to "sweeping" protectionism, though it bars Canadian suppliers from bidding on highways, bridges and other infrastructure. The move has "in no way endangered the billions of dollars in trade between our two countries," he insisted.

That remains to be seen. Yet whatever the ultimate damage, Canadians have reason to be offended by this spasm of protectionism from our chief trade partner, at a time when Obama, Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon are promising to "avoid protectionist measures" and to work together to restore growth. Nor are Canadians alone in feeling the U.S. protectionist sting. Calderon has imposed retaliation on behalf of Mexican truckers, who also are hurting.

Given these strains, the conditions were ideal at the fifth North American Leaders’ Summit for Harper and Calderon to join forces (despite their different economic agendas) and make a strong public pitch to Obama to exempt us from these irritants. It didn’t happen.

Instead, Harper spent much of his time scrambling to mend fences with Calderon after angering Mexicans by suddenly slapping visa restrictions on them last month. Almost apologetically, Harper faulted not Mexican authorities but Canada’s refugee law, which he said "encourages bogus claimants." He praised Calderon to the skies for battling the drug cartels. And he offered Mounties to train the Mexican police to fight organized crime. Despite these overtures, Calderon made no secret that Mexicans feel "very bad" about the visa rule.

At best, Harper’s fence-mending was an ill-timed distraction from the bread-and-butter Buy America issue that directly affects Canadian manufacturers and their workers and from other key issues, including planning for more outbreaks of H1N1 influenza, Mexico’s drug wars, immigration issues, and energy policy and climate change.

Whatever Harper, Calderon and Obama may have said about Buy America policies in "candid and constructive" exchanges behind closed doors, this was a missed opportunity for a concerted, public show of Canadian-Mexican irritation. Bilateral damage control seemed to take precedence.

At his next meeting with Obama, in Washington on Sept. 16, Harper will be under pressure to demonstrate that his Conservative government can get a serious hearing from Washington’s Democrats concerning the protectionism that is sweeping the U.S. A stronger show of Canadian-Mexican concern from Guadalajara wouldn’t have hurt.