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The big winner in the Canadian election: Obama

The Obama administration is likely to find common ground with the new Canadian leadership on many of its priorities.

Justin Trudeau, only 43 years old, campaigned on an Obama-like message of transformation.
REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Canada is having its own ‘hope and change’ moment, a dramatic turn after nearly 10 years of what has been called the most conservative government in its history. On foreign policy, the Obama administration is likely to find common ground with the new leadership on many —but not all — of its priorities.

Elsewhere, this had been a year of surprise election victories by hard-pressed conservative incumbents, notably Britain’s David Cameron and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. On Monday, Canadians broke the other way. They denied Prime Minister Stephen Harper a fourth term, entrusting the government to Justin Trudeau, the 43-year-old son of one of Canada’s most renowned leaders.

Even though Trudeau’s Liberals took only about 40 percent of the popular vote, the size of the victory was impressive. After a devastating loss in 2011 left them with only 34 seats in parliament, they added 150 for an absolute majority. Harper’s Conservatives lost 67 seats and the New Democratic Party lost 59.

(Along Minnesota’s border, Liberals gained districts in Ontario east of Lake of the Woods. But southern Manitoba stayed in Conservative hands).

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The campaign was largely about the economy and other domestic issues. Much has been made of the personalities of the candidates and tone of the campaign, as well. Commentator Neil Macdonald found a U.S. analogy. For many in the political class, he said, Harper was about as popular as Dick Cheney at the end of George W. Bush’s second term. Trudeau campaigned on an Obama-like message of transformation.

Although Harper characterized Trudeau as an inexperienced lightweight, the label didn’t seem to stick. Or if it did, voters were so fed up with the incumbent that they still preferred to take a chance on Trudeau. 

Tone is an important aspect of leadership, but it goes only so far. It’s hard to translate into policy. Even so, it’s clear that Canada’s foreign policy will change.

When it comes to issues like policy toward Iran and Israel, climate change and the Keystone XL pipeline, Harper is in tune with Obama’s Republican critics. He has been a strong supporter (“best friend,” in the words of some Israeli commentators) of Netanyahu, backing his opposition to Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, the agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program. In 2012, he cut Canada’s diplomatic ties with Iran.

But Harper also has given Obama backing on one of his biggest foreign policy headaches, the campaign against Islamic State extremists. In April, Canada joined the Obama administration’s bombing campaign in Syria. 

That will change under Trudeau, who says there are better ways to combat the extremists, such as training local forces. He has already told Obama that he will end Canada’s participation in the air strikes, but continue its training efforts in Iraq. He also has promised to admit more Syria refugees: 25,000 by next January, compared to 10,000 promised by the Conservatives.

The loss of a NATO member in the air campaign against the Islamic State is a blow to the Obama administration. But the absence of Canada’s six warplanes is unlikely to be a deal breaker for Washington, which has struggled for years to come up with a coherent policy on Syria.

Obama will gain new support from Canada in other areas of its Middle East policy. Liberals support the Iran nuclear deal. Trudeau also says he will restore relations with Tehran, a positive sign for Iranians hoping that the agreement offers a path to ending their country’s pariah status. While he has spoken out as strongly as Harper against the campaign to boycott or disinvest in Israel, he is unlikely to be as fulsome in his support for Netanyahu.

On another Obama priority, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, Trudeau wants to see more detail before committing.

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U.S. officials will be keeping an eye on his policy on drugs; he has called for the nationwide legalization of marijuana.

Obama and Trudeau are likely to work through differences and forge a closer relationship on climate and energy issues, as well. Harper pressed hard on the Keystone XL pipeline as a means of developing a market for Canada’s tar sands reserves in Alberta. A U.S. decision is still on Obama’s desk, and there is a growing consensus in Washington that he will reject it. (Hillary Rodham Clinton opposes it; most Republican presidential candidates support it.)

Trudeau also supports Keystone, but says he doesn’t want it to be the focus of U.S.-Canadian relations. That, falling oil prices and growing political pressure in Alberta, offer an avenue for working through the problem.

And Obama will find stronger support on climate change, another foreign policy priority in which he’s managed to engage the world’s other top polluter, China.

Among other things, Harper withdrew Canada from the Kyoto protocols on climate change (which the George W. Bush administration also refused to implement). 

Trudeau says he’ll work with provincial leaders to come up with plans to address climate change, that he’ll set targets and provide money to help the provinces meet them. He’ll attend a major global summit on climate change in Paris later this year.