President Barack Obama's first out-of-country foray since his inauguration, to Canada, was a necessary good-neighbor visit. It is reminiscent of George W. Bush's first foreign trip as president, to Mexico.
In economic hard times good neighbors are especially important. The United States and Canada are, of course, each other's largest trading partner. Canada is America's largest customer for its exports.
In part because of its proximity, Canada is also suffering from America's economic malady. It lost 129,000 jobs in January in a population of 33 million and is suffering 7.2 percent unemployment. Mr. Obama's visit, and his words while there, made it clear that the United States understands Canada's plight and sees the need to address the recession as a common problem.
In the presidential campaign Mr. Obama suggested that his administration might wish to renegotiate the North America Free Trade Agreement -- which binds the United States, Canada and Mexico -- to improve the situation of American workers with regard to jobs moving out of the country. He appears now to have shelved that idea and in Canada stressed instead the interdependence of the two economies.
During the visit Mr. Obama soft-pedaled his desire that America's NATO allies, including Canada, should increase their troop contribution to the conflict in Afghanistan, building on his own decision to escalate U.S. involvement by 17,000 troops. Canada has 2,800 troops in Afghanistan, who are scheduled to stay until 2011; more than 100 have died there. The nation's Afghan role has required an attitude adjustment by Canadians who were accustomed to their forces participating in United Nations peacekeeping missions, but not necessarily combat.
Mr. Obama's points in Ottawa about his administration's desire for a more responsible environmental policy played well. His popularity north of the border tops 80 percent in some polls. He used it modestly and emphasized the importance he attaches to Canada as a partner.
For the president and this neighbor, it's so far, so good. He'll need to visit Mexico, though, and a trip to Europe is scheduled for early April. In the meantime, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and his special envoys are laying the ground work for the administration's more challenging relations with parts of Asia and the Middle East.
First published on February 23, 2009