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The Obama White House hosts Justin Trudeau for a state dinner March 10. This is the first full-scale official visit by a Canadian prime minister since 1997.

Justin Trudeau has attracted major media attention in the U.S., raising his profile in Canada. For the prime minister, the visit has already borne fruit.

Why does a U.S. president in the last year of his mandate want to meet and entertain Justin Trudeau? It is a question Canadians should be asking. 

As leader of the lonely superpower, an American president has a global outlook. Historically, presidents like to include Canada in their plans for the world.

For nearly 50 years, Stephen Clarkson, who passed away February 28, studied how Canada approached Washington, and what the U.S got from Ottawa. His insights inform us still.

In 1968 Clarkson published a path-breaking edited collection. An Independent Foreign Policy for Canada? questioned the guiding principle of postwar Canadian foreign policy. “Quiet diplomacy” suggested Canada could best influence the world by inserting itself into behind-the-scenes talks in Washington, and influencing U.S. policy before it was made.

Under this doctrine associated with postwar Liberal governments, it was important for Canada to resist making easy political points at home through public criticism of the U.S., or to engage in cross-border disputes Canada could not win. Clarkson pointed out quiet diplomacy assumed that Canada could get access to the U.S. presidential entourage through superior statecraft, which was doubtful; and that presidents made foreign policy, when the U.S. constitution reserved that power for the Senate.

In the 1960s, with fellow University of Toronto political economists Mel Watkins and Abraham Rotstein, Clarkson was at the centre of debates over policies advocated by Liberal Walter Gordon to control U.S ownership of Canadian industry and resources.

Stephen Hymer and Kari Polanyi Levitt added their strong voices to what became a New Canadian Political Economy, exemplified soon in subsequent work by Daniel Drache, James Laxer, R.T. (Tom) Naylor, Wallace Clement, and Marjorie Griffin Cohen.

Clarkson showed how the concentration of American economic power in Canada threatened its political independence. The pursuit of “continentalism” constrained Canadian governments.

Democracy required parliaments and legislatures to make laws independently of foreign governments. Stephen Clarkson described Canada as governed by an “external constitution” of cross-border agreements, fashioned by successive American administrations, that tied down elected MPs and MLAs, similar to domestic constraints imposed by federalism.

In 1940, for defence planning and defence spending, Canada had linked its fortunes to the U.S. under the Ogdensburg Agreement, which established a Permanent Joint Board of Defence.

Clarkson characterized the 1988 Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement as Canadian “economic disarmament” (for Pierre Trudeau it was a “massive swindle”). The Canada-U.S. trade deal was obtained at the cost of Canadian manufacturing jobs. Unemployment insurance and welfare were harmonized down to American standards.

Initiated by Ronald Reagan and signed by a Conservative government, the bilateral accord was superseded by a trilateral NAFTA deal (including Mexico) implemented by the Chrétien Liberals after their election in 1993. 

As Clarkson pointed out, after 2001 the U.S. decided security trumped a continental economic accord like NAFTA. For example, the formerly open U.S.-Canadian border was closed to most U.S. citizens by the simple expedient of requiring them to show a U.S. passport in order to return home from Canada. After the first continental trade deal became law in 1989, Canada exported the equivalent of 100 years of domestic supply of conventional light crude oil to meet 10 years of American consumer needs. Yet the NAFTA accord was effectively shut down by the Obama administration. When the U.S. State Department vetoed the Keystone pipeline, it limited Canadian access to the U.S. market for energy.

Without access to U.S. Gulf refineries for bitumen from Alberta, Canadian taxpayer subsidies to U.S. heavy oil producers (including the extreme right-wing Koch brothers) had built stranded assets. Canada the energy superpower heralded by Conservative PM Stephen Harper was on standby; permanently so, as long as the U.S. fracks enough oil and gas to meet its own needs.

With oil and gas exports no longer the leading economic sector, there is no indication Justin Trudeau and his ministers have another economic direction in mind.

The usual course for whoever has formed government in Ottawa has been to allow the U.S. to set the economic agenda for both governments.

If the history of Canadian-American relations means anything, Canadians can expect the Obama government to have a plan for the U.S. economy that includes Canadian resources such as water.

Press leaks suggest Obama wants a continental environment accord as part of his legacy. The White House plans to get what it needs from Ottawa this coming week. Stephen Clarkson would have predicted as much.

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: Pete Souza/Wikimedia Commons

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