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Strained relations with neighbor to the north

CALGARY, ALBERTA — CALGARY, ALBERTA -- Not surprisingly, the United States has become an issue in Canada's national election campaign in which voters will choose a new government Monday.

Recent public opinion polls show Prime Minister Paul Martin's ruling Liberal Party trailing opposition leader Stephen Harper's Conservatives. They also show that President Bush is highly unpopular in Canada and that Canadians believe the Liberals are the best party to deal with Washington.

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At a U.N. conference in Montreal last month, Mr. Martin accused the Bush administration of lacking a "global conscience" on climate change because of its refusal to recommend ratification of the Kyoto Protocol.

U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins noted that the United States has a better record than Canada of curbing greenhouse gas emissions and warned that continued Canadian carping would put the two countries on a "slippery slope" that could damage their relations. But his comments had the opposite effect.

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Mr. Martin retorted that he would "not be dictated to" by Washington. And Mr. Harper, seeking to shed his pro-American image, called Mr. Wilkins' intervention "inappropriate."

Mr. Martin's current stance is a departure from his promise to establish a "more sophisticated relationship" with the United States than his predecessor, Jean ChrM-itien. Although Mr. ChrM-itien had been a close ally of Mr. Bush in the war on terror, his government was deeply skeptical of the administration's claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and opted not to participate in the Iraq war. The decision, which was widely supported in Canada, was accompanied by an escalating war of words between Canadian critics and U.S. defenders of Mr. Bush's policies.

By the time Mr. Martin took power in December 2003, Canadian public disapproval of the war had hardened into opposition to Mr. Bush's foreign policy.

Mr. Martin was weakened by the June 2004 election that reduced his government to minority status, making its survival a day-to-day issue.

Adding to Mr. Martin's difficulties was the failure of the Bush administration to honor North American Free Trade Agreement dispute panel decisions requiring an end to penalties on Canadian softwood lumber imports.

The cumulative effect of these developments undermined Mr. Martin's efforts to forge better relations with Mr. Bush. A case in point was Mr. Martin's plan to take part in the administration's ballistic missile defense program, which foundered because of domestic and parliamentary opposition, and Mr. Bush's poorly timed public intervention in the debate during his visit to Canada in late 2004.

These developments have been accompanied by significant changes in the international outlooks of the two countries. In the United States, the shift in demographic and political power from the Northeast to the Southwest has caused decision-makers to focus on Mexico rather than Canada. By contrast, Canadians remain overwhelmingly preoccupied with the United States.

Also, the Bush administration's resort to unilateral action in international affairs has clashed with the Martin government's preference for multilateralism. This has put the two sides at odds over issues ranging from the Kyoto Protocol to the International Criminal Court.

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Yet Canada and the United States remain inextricably linked. With a shared border of more than 5,000 miles, each is crucial in the other's security calculations. The two countries are each other's principal trading partners, with about 85 percent of Canadian exports destined for the United States and about 20 percent of U.S. exports going to Canada.

Canada is the largest foreign exporter of energy to the U.S. market, supplying 88 percent of U.S. natural gas imports and 17 percent of its imports of oil. Thirty-seven states count Canada as their biggest customer. On top of this, 300,000 people cross the border every day.

The vast majority of these transactions are managed amicably by Canadian and U.S. officials despite discord at the top. However, it is at the highest levels of government that the overall tone and approaches to the relationship are set. Unless those in power in Ottawa and Washington can find ways to cooperate when they can, and to manage differences when they can't, more strains are bound to result.

Donald Barry is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary. His e-mail is barry@ucalgary.ca.



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