PM Harper Meets US, Mexican Presidents

The beach at Cancún is an endless ribbon of sand at the edge of an ocean so sun-dipped and gorgeous it almost hurts your eyes to look.

PM Harper Meets US, Mexican Presidents

The beach at Cancún is an endless ribbon of sand at the edge of an ocean so sun-dipped and gorgeous it almost hurts your eyes to look. The effect was hardly spoiled at all last week by the sight of a half-dozen Mexican gunboats riding the waves, while military helicopters flew overhead and security forces in dune buggies threaded their way along the beach, periodically dodging the occasional well-heeled and deep-brown tourist.

So the beach resort's ageless preoccupation, commerce, collided for a few days with the need for increased security. And no wonder: George W. Bush was in town, to be greeted by Mexican President Vicente Fox. The two were joined by a man Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, repeatedly called "Prime Minister Martin" in a briefing a few days before the big summit meeting began.

That would be Stephen Harper.

The rookie Prime Minister was joining his colleagues for a summit whose preoccupations were the same as those that had collided on the beach: commerce and security. The Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America, which Bush and Fox signed with Paul MARTIN last year in Waco, Texas, commits the three countries to closer co-operation so they can maximize the flow of goods and services across their borders, while minimizing the flow of terrorists and clandestine migrants.

This was the embryonic partnership's second meeting. Before it was over, Harper had announced there will be a third next year in Canada. It's starting to look like a permanent part of the North American landscape. For the new Prime Minister, the challenge was to show that he can continue the work Martin started without carrying his predecessor's weighty political baggage wherever he goes.

That meant setting a healthier tone for his relationship with Bush, without slipping into any of the backslapping and Irish-folk-tune-singing that made Brian Mulroney's relationship with Ronald Reagan get on so many Canadians' nerves.

But first, there was a round of social preliminaries. The Prime Minister had originally planned to fly to Cancún from Ottawa on Thursday and head straight into bilateral meetings with Fox and then with Bush. That schedule would have fit the no-frills, down-to-business tone he has set since his Jan. 23 election victory. But Fox urged Harper to come a day earlier and kick off the festivities with a three-leader visit to the majestic pyramids at Chichén Itzá.

The pyramids were built by the Maya. Perhaps Harper saw parallels to the Liberals. Both civilizations built vast empires that seemed set to last an eternity, but collapsed after their leaders began engaging in bizarre rites of human sacrifice. And the Mayan leaders, like Jean CHRÉTIEN, didn't shrink from the prospect of running up a few flights of stairs. Harper is less exuberant. He walked up 10 of the dozens of steps on the Temple of the Warriors with Bush and Fox, commenting warily that the narrow steps "weren't made for big guys like us."

After lunch, Harper got down to business of a more prosaic sort. He and Fox sat in identical easy chairs to chat, while their senior staff faced each other in parallel Red-Rover lines of chairs. Together they agreed that Mexican guest workers might help fill labour shortages in Canada, especially Alberta; and that university presidents from each country should visit the other to work on joint research and teaching initiatives. So far, so routine.

Harper's face-to-face meeting with Bush followed. The two had met before when Harper was leader of the Opposition, but this was their first meeting as heads of government. Or rather, their first business meeting. Harper had hitched a half-hour ride in Bush's helicopter to get to the photo-op at the Mayan pyramids; aides to Harper reported they had enjoyed "a good discussion in cramped circumstances." Given the chance to spread out, the two men reported they had had another good discussion.

"I appreciate his steely resolve to get things done," Bush told reporters. "I want to thank you for your candour," he added, turning to Harper.

Canadian officials said Harper had pressed Bush for faster progress in settling the ageless dispute over Canadian softwood-lumber exports, and had conveyed Canadian fears that a requirement cooked up by the U.S. Congress to require "passports or passport-like documents" for any trip across the U.S. border would hopelessly bung up every border crossing in the country.

What, precisely, had Harper said to impress his candour and steely resolve on Bush? Harper wasn't telling. "I don't report on private conversations," he told reporters later. But he added that he is known for expressing himself, "not only clearly, but colourfully and not suitable for public television." He seemed to be telling us he had sworn at the President. That's one way to get his attention.

The meeting was short on "deliverables" - concrete announcements of future government action, of the sort that officials usually work hard to cook up in advance of such meetings. Bush and Harper said they will urge their governments to look once again for a solution to the softwood dispute. They will get the NORAD continental-defence treaty ready to re-ratify before it runs out in May. (But there was no mention of Bush's cherished ballistic-missile defence project, from which Martin abstained and which Harper seems in no hurry to join.) In the absence of immediate announcements, they seemed to expect some will come soon: Bush invited Harper to Washington in June to continue their work.

If there is a new mood in the relationship between the White House and the tenant of 24 Sussex Drive, the only evidence was in Bush's repeated descriptions of Harper as a straight shooter, and in the Prime Minister's telling description of the two countries' common values: "Freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law." These values are not only for Canadians and Americans to enjoy, Harper said in what seemed a conscious echo of the applause line from several of Bush's post-9/11 speeches, "they are the right of every people on the face of the planet." Harper did say the two countries "may disagree" on how to promote those values. But he repeated that they form the common ground between the two countries.

Dinner on Thursday and breakfast on Friday were devoted to the main event, the three-leader discussions aimed at broadening and deepening the Security and Prosperity Partnership. The goal here is more trade with less danger. That meant progress - real but unspectacular - on several fronts at once. The three countries will coordinate their emergency response to natural disasters, nasty new diseases, or terrorist mayhem. They will try to better share their energy resources and look for innovative new energy sources. And most strikingly, they will create a "North American Competitiveness Council" to advise leaders on keeping borders open and markets moving. Blue-chip executives from the BANK OF NOVA SCOTIA, Ganong, Suncor Energy, Home Depot Canada and, inevitably, POWER CORP. were with Harper to mark the creation of the council.

For Fox, whose country is the most vulnerable of the three amigos, all of these steps demonstrated that "institutionalizing the mechanisms" of the continental partnership "is of the utmost importance." Harper said the desire to fit out the three-country alliance with boards and secretariats and similar apparatus was felt most strongly by Fox and least strongly by Bush. But all the leaders are willing to formalize their new relationship - as long as "any structure we create is helpful and does not become a bureaucracy."

It's the classic question, faced by the European Union since the 1960s and by every other regional grouping of nations since: how do you balance the benefits of free trade with the constraints of joint institutions? It was a question North Americans had hoped to avoid until 9/11, when the trade benefits of NAFTA seemed menaced by the overwhelming American requirement to police U.S. borders. It is impossible to overstate the extent to which Americans' sense of vulnerability still dominates their thinking. Lou Dobbs, the increasingly wild-eyed anchorman of a CNN business show, set up camp in Cancún for the duration of the summit to broadcast nightly harangues about America's "broken borders."

To Harper, there is a clear difference between European integration, driven by that continent's political and intellectual elites, and North American integration, driven by - well, by our business elites. "It's not a case of the leaders of countries seeking to impose this upon society and upon the economy," he said at the closing news conference. "What it is a case of is the business community, in particular, increasingly inviting us to co-operate more fully and to address a lot of structural inadequacies in NAFTA."

NAFTA created a particular circumstance: what Fox called an "incredible" increase in cross-border trade in each of the three countries. The terrorist attacks endanger that circumstance. "It is incumbent on all of us, as executive leaders, to impress upon our legislatures and the political world the fact that we are all integrated - that the policies of isolation have no place," Harper said.

It's probably too early to turn cartwheels - or, if you're so inclined, to sink into despair - about a fundamentally new and cozy relationship between Ottawa and Washington. Bush's first meetings with Martin seemed to go pretty well, too. But Harper seems to have reached a tacit understanding with his powerful and mercurial opposite number in the White House. They will not call each other by their first names. Harper will begin their every public appearance with a long statement in French, clearly baffling Bush but leaving the francophone Ottawa press corps with plenty of usable clips to air in Quebec ridings where Harper hopes to win his electoral majority.

But in return for that aura of formality, the bilateral relationship will hum along in - there is no other right word - a businesslike fashion. Harper in Washington in June. Bush and Harper will meet with Fox's successor sometime in Canada next spring. A shiny new CEO council to advise them all on how it's going. With his March trip to Afghanistan and this first meeting with Bush, Harper - never a foreign-policy maven before he won the big job - has shown how seriously he takes Canada's most onerous military commitment and its eternally predominant bilateral relationship. There is more to foreign policy than that, but Harper seems determined to nail the technical components before worrying about artistic impression.

Maclean's April 10, 2006