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Harper needs to play the ‘reliable ally’ card at the G20

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
September 4, 2013

Prime Minister Stephen Harper goes to the Constantine Palace in St. Petersburg on Thursday for the G20 summit. He has three roles to play: To be a good friend; a reliable ally; and, always, to be our chief diplomat in advancing Canadian interests.

The backdrop to this summit is Syria, especially now that U.S. President Barack Obama has delayed an armed response until he has the sense of Congress.

In Britain, last week’s House of Commons defeat has left a diminished Prime Minister David Cameron. Mr. Cameron will appreciate the advice of the like-minded Mr. Harper, who also understands the challenges of parliamentary government.

Mr. Cameron and his foreign minister William Hague are Mr. Harper’s staunchest foreign friends and supporters. They are also our steadfast advocates within Europe for the stalled Canada-Europe trade agreement.

Mr. Obama is likewise afflicted by Syria. He comes to St. Petersburg seeking allies. He will welcome Mr. Harper’s assistance in building international support to enforce the norm against the regime of Bashar al-Assad for using poison gas.

When blunt language is required, Mr. Obama can count on Mr. Harper, especially during the almost-certain debate on Syrian intervention with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the lead-up to the Lough Erne G8 summit, Mr. Harper condemned Mr. Putin’s support of the “thugs of the Assad regime” and underlined the “G7 plus one” divide between the West and Russia.

The Harper-Obama relationship is not that of Harper-Cameron, but Mr. Harper understands that the dynamic of a successful Canada-US relationship depends on being a reliable ally.

The Keystone XL pipeline permit process is frustrating but Mr. Harper will recognize that the Canadian ‘ask’ has evolved into another pawn in the polarized world of Washington politics. Mr. Harper can help our cause by giving the President a preview of our forthcoming oil and gas regulations and their contribution to abating climate change.

A useful contribution to collective trade liberalization would see the two leaders recommit to their initiative on border access and regulatory alignment. We need to match the progress we have made on perimeter security with an expedited flow of people, goods and services.

Mr. Harper should push Mr. Obama on country-of-origin labelling, a noxious piece of U.S. protectionism that is effectively blocking Canadian beef and pork exports. It is also an issue on which he and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto can make common cause.

Curbing protectionism is a constant challenge. In the last year, the Global Trade Alert has catalogued a record 431 new protectionist measures with the majority imposed by G20 nations. With our economic growth dependent on trade, Canada has vital interests in further trade liberalization.

In his separate meetings with fellow leaders, Mr. Harper needs to advance the Canadian case for the Canada-Europe trade agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The Trans Pacific Partnership would cover 40 per cent of global economic output and about a third of world trade. It aims to become the gold standard for other trade pacts. With key leaders present in St. Petersburg, side conversations can help set up progress at the next round in Bali. Canada and the U.S. have both committed to concluding the TPP negotiations this year.

If only the Canada-Europe talks could progress that quickly: Now into their fifth year of negotiations, the Europeans are increasingly skeptical that Mr. Harper wants a deal.

The Europeans thought it would be done by the end of January. The British were ready to run interference for us in Lough Erne but the offer was apparently declined. The European leadership from Brussels will be in St. Petersburg.

Mr. Harper should seize the moment and conclude the deal. When it comes to trade liberalization, half a loaf is much better than none.

European attention is rapidly shifting to the potential deal with the United States, while the EU leadership who have invested in this deal, will change next May with the EU elections.

Credit Paul Martin, Mr. Harper’s predecessor, as the architect of the G20. As Finance Minister, Mr. Martin showed foresight in recognizing that globalization obliged a new, more inclusive forum to act as the clearing house for global financial and economic issues.

The worth of summits is rarely reflected in their communiqués. More will draft that document than will read it. The utility of summitry is the process of consultations leading into the summit and then in the frank talk between leaders when they meet. What happens at the main table is usually less relevant than in the corridor discussions. It is there that things get done.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a senior advisor to McKenna, Long and Aldridge, LLP.


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