Mitt Romney is touring the UK, Israel, and Poland this week -- but not Canada. Why not?
Wait, wait, hear me out: This is not the usual "they forgot Canada again!" lament.
The political purpose of Romney's foreign tour was to accuse President Barack Obama of straining relationships with key allies. Poland, for example, was miffed by the abrupt cancellation of a U.S. anti-missile program. Romney would not actually articulate the accusation. Outright criticism of a serving president on foreign soil is considered a breach of political etiquette. But simply by showing up, Romney would drive his message home.
Yet on the campaign trail at home, the relationship that Republican politicians accuse Obama of damaging most often -- most often after Israel anyway -- is the relationship with Canada. Romney lists approval of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada as one of the entries on the short list of things he'd do on his first day as president. Romney speeches often cite the suspension of the pipeline as one of Obama's worst errors. So why no visit to Fort McMurray? Presumably, he'd be welcome, right?
Or maybe not.
Canadians have reason not to wish to be used as a backdrop for domestic U.S. political photo-ops. One of the structural features of U.S. politics is that once one party takes a position, the other must attack. Barack Obama failed to appreciate the power of this rule. He based his health care reform on Republican ideas ("Romneycare" in Massachusetts, for example), hoping that he'd gain Republican support. Instead, Republicans repudiated their own prior policies.
Historically, the development of a closer energy relationship with Canada has not been a partisan issue in the United States. Both parties favour the relationship, neither talks about it much. Unfortunately, as Keystone has become a subject of U.S. national debate, Canada risks being caught in the American partisan cross-fire. The more Republicans champion Keystone, the more Democrats will seize on Keystone opposition as a partisan and cultural marker. Which means that attention to bilateral U.S.-Canadian issues is the very last thing Canadians should want in a U.S. presidential race.
What should Canadians want from the next American president? Right now, the bilateral U.S.-Canada relationship is working very well for both countries. The energy connection is deepening, there are no important trade frictions and border-crossing issues are in the process of being resolved.
The most important Canadian concerns about the United States are not bilateral, but systemic. Canadians should want to know from the two candidates whether the U.S. pulls its weight to avert the next impending crises in the global economy: The danger of a blow-up of the Eurozone; the danger of economic slowdown or even recession in China and India, the last rapidly growing sources of global demand.
Yet those concerns are curiously undiscussed in this election season.
Romney's speeches often mention Europe, but -- in deference to the prejudices of his hard-line voters -- the mentions fundamentally misstate the Eurozone problem. European welfare states may well be too big and generous, but that bigness and generosity is emphatically not the reason the currency is in trouble. (The German welfare state is more generous than the Spanish; yet it is Spain, not Germany, that is in crisis.)
Obama usually avoids the subject altogether, even as the Federal Reserve quietly commits vast and unaccounted for sums to support the bonds of troubled European countries. The question facing the Obama administration is: If and when the crisis breaks -- if and when the European Central Bank is faced with "doing whatever it takes" to keep Spain and Italy in the Eurozone -- will the United States share that burden ... or will it set some limit to its European currency commitments. The answer to that question is potentially denominated in the hundreds of billions, maybe the trillions.
Yet, on the biggest foreign policy issue of the day, neither candidate will risk any advance indication of what he would do -- or thinks should be done. That amounts to rather a large omission -- and a photo-op of a smiling Mitt Romney wearing a hardhat beside a pipeline in Fort McMurray, Alta., would not have filled the gap.
This blog is cross-posted at National Post.