Summer has never been an uneventful period for U.S. President Barack Obama, ever since becoming a candidate for the Presidency in 2007. His dip in political support and public approval often occurs during the sunny months of the summer. This year is no exception.
Events in Ferguson, Missouri, showed that the racial divide in America persists despite the twice-elected African American to the White House. It has been reported continuously in newscast that African Americans have the highest rate of unemployment, the greatest levels of incarceration, and are the most likely to be victims of police brutality. This did not end with Obama’s election and will unfortunately continue beyond. Hopefully, the lessons learned from Ferguson will lead to some improvements in the short to medium term.
Events beyond the borders of America, including the war in Gaza, the conflict in the Ukraine with Russian interference and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—a radical Sunni jihadists group intent on creating an Islamic state in the territory of Syria and Iraq—have also affected Obama’s current approval ratings (around 40 percent), as well as his presidency and likely, his legacy.
The war in Iraq, started under the Bush administration, has not resulted in stability as the ISIS has taken large portions of land and destabilized the Iraqi government. In Syria, the civil war has morphed into the rise of a self-declared caliphate by the ISIS terrorists with greater implications for security concerns in Europe and North America. Efforts by the U.S. government to achieve a two-state solution peace settlement between Israel and Palestine are now mired in war. And the crisis in the Ukraine remains unresolved as U.S.–Russia relations worsen.
As we approach the commemoration of the unspeakable tragedy of 9/11, is the world safer? Clearly, the answer is no. I was present in New York City at the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and I can attest to the lasting scar on the American psyche. With foreign recruits possibly involved with the ISIS, the Western world, and American security officials in particular, cannot believe that the worst has passed. The fact that the U.S. is now conducting multiple air attacks on ISIS targets in Iraq and in support of the Kurds is indicative that America is changing course in this volatile part of the world. The Obama Administration and the American people have every right to be worried about future homeland attacks or greater involvement in ground conflicts in the Middle East.
In the weeks ahead, it is likely that the Obama administration will ask for wider war powers. It is also possible that U.S. air raids will take place against the ISIS on Syrian soil. In short, we can anticipate an extension of the current conflict.
The savage death of American journalist James Foley has brought the potential horror of the ISIS closer to home. While the Republicans and even to some extent Democrats, Hilary Clinton included, have been critical of Obama’s approach to foreign policy in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, we can expect a closing of the ranks as the threat of the ISIS becomes more imminent to the security of the American homeland.
Events in the Middle East have received their share of coverage in Canada, but never to the same extent as in the United States. This, however, is about to change as Obama addresses the latest turning point—greater U.S. involvement. Certainly, all this could have negative implications for his presidency and his legacy. More important, however, it will also have more serious consequences for U.S. allies as the conflict will surely escalate.
Since the birth of Canada in 1867, Quebec has been an influential player in determining the country’s leadership. Throughout the country’s history, Quebec has played an important role in federal politics, most notably in modern times. Not only have Quebecers (Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, and Paul Martin) occupied the seat of the Canadian Prime Minister for over 36 years (1968 to 2006), but throughout those years, the pro-independence movement in Quebec has had a persistent impact on the conduct of federal politics.
Until the 1993 federal general election, it was conventional wisdom in Canadian electoral politics that no party could form a majority government in the Canadian House of Commons without some significant Quebec representation. This changed with the emergence of the pro-independence Bloc Québécois, which took the majority of seats from the province of Quebec, thereby becoming the Official Opposition. The Bloc went on to become a dominant voice for Quebec in the federal parliament in every subsequent election until the last electoral rendezvous in 2011. It is fair to say that Quebec’s absence within the federal power structure curtailed its influence and gradually resulted in its decline as a player in federal politics over the next two decades.
After a long and dreary winter and an unusually rainy spring, Montrealers have greeted the summer season with the Canadian Grand Prix, a series of elaborate street festivals including Jazz Fest and Just for Laughs, and the traditional national holidays of Québec and Canada. They are part of the usual rituals of summer associated with Montreal.
This year, however, may mark the beginning of a new optimism and a concerted effort at reviving the city—and may make the buzz a year-round reality. At least, that’s the hope.
This past winter, a prominent businessman and executive banker, Jacques Ménard of the Bank of Montreal, Canada’s oldest bank, released a report he had commissioned from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) dealing with Montreal’s current challenges and ways to revitalize the city.
Comparing Montreal with other cities possessing similar characteristics, the BCG report presented a ten point revitalization program, including additional powers usually associated with a city’s status as a metropolis, such as greater powers of taxation and greater autonomy.
The activities surrounding the 70th anniversary Normandy landing commemorations on June 6 displayed the tensions between western leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper avoided meeting Putin altogether, while other leaders, including President Obama, participated in the minimum photo-ops to honor the sacrifice of those who liberated Europe.
Maybe it is a sign of the times, but I am perplexed by some of the western media’s treatment of Putin. Never mind that he violated international law by unilaterally annexing Crimea this past spring or that he systematically used his Security Council veto to avoid a possible alternative to the atrocious civil war in Syria in its early stages. Now we have a humanitarian crisis that is out of control.
Last September when it was discovered that the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, President Obama was faced with a real challenge to his “red line” ultimatum about the use of such weapons in the conflict. With Obama unable to get Congressional endorsement for air strikes to counter Assad’s regime and its tactics, Putin took the lead in the removal of chemical weapons operation, with backing from the UN. The result was interpreted as a successful outcome for Putin and an embarrassing moment for both the Obama administration and the western powers. The general consensus was that Putin put one over on Obama, but few questioned Putin’s real role in the conflict.
Last summer whistleblower Edward Snowden was making the headlines about the U.S. security apparatus’ illegal surveillance on American citizens. Not only did he divulge the National Security Agency (NSA) policy, but he may have revealed information considered damaging to national security. We know the rest. Snowden escaped to Hong Kong, was charged by the U.S. government under the Espionage Act, and eventually received refuge in Russia. An ironic twist, given the repressive nature of the Putin regime, that Russia is now harboring a U.S. charged criminal.
This year represented the twentieth edition of the Conference of Montreal, organized by the International Economic Forum of the Americas. Much like the Davos World Economic Conference held in Switzerland, the Conference of Montreal has become a “go-to” conference. The brain child of founder Gil Rémillard, it provides an opportunity for economic and political actors to discuss, debate and initiate policies and ideas designed to meet the economic challenges of tomorrow. It also sets economic trends and provides a forum for forward thinking.
This year, among numerous speakers and over 3,000 attendees, the conference hosted several featured guests, including International Monetary Fund director general Christine Lagarde, former Obama and Clinton economic advisor Lawrence Summers, and the secretary general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Ángel Gurría.
The conference’s theme this year focused on dealing with what organizers call the “next era of growth.” With the Great Recession behind us, there remain concerns about whether the right conditions exist for sustained global growth. It is clear that the financial crisis of 2008-2009 left its scars, and growth patterns remain inconsistent in both developed and emerging economies.
Like so many in Canada, the U.S., and Western Europe, I was moved by the commemorative events surrounding the Normandy landing that took place 70 years ago on June 6, 1944. It was a moment to remember the ultimate sacrifice of what journalist Tom Brokaw labeled “the Greatest Generation,” who struggled in the defense of freedom and the elimination of Nazi barbarism. We owe so much to those who fought and to the few veterans remaining. It was a fitting memorial.
In stark contrast to the events surrounding the Normandy landing, a growing controversy in about a prisoner-of-war swap soon became the news of the day. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. combatant who was held captive for five years by the Taliban in Afghanistan, was part of a deal that released five Taliban terrorists held at Guantánamo Bay detention camp since 2001.
While the news was greeted with elation in the early hours of its announcement, allegations soon began surfacing that Bergdahl may have actually been captured following a planned desertion. Some of his troop members, who went searching for him and allegedly suffered casualties, took to the airwaves criticizing the deal made by the Obama Administration and brokered by the Qatar government.
On two previous occasions, I have used the Americas Quarterly blog as a space to talk about gun violence. The incidents in Aurora (July 2012) provoked one, and another surfaced when remembering the events of Montreal’s Polytechnique Engineering School in 1989 where 14 women were gunned down. We can also recall Virginia Tech, Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Dawson College as further evidence that gun violence is still very prevalent. All this violence has occurred on school campuses involving assailants with serious mental problems.
Now we have the sad and scary events in Santa Barbara. As the parent of one of the victims said last Saturday: when will it stop?
This past weekend we were exposed to the YouTube video of the alleged killer in Santa Barbara where six people died and 13 were injured. The footage was chilling to watch and was replayed continuously over various newscasts. The killing rummage was quick and sudden and it surfaced that the assailant purchased his weapon and armaments legally.
It would be easy to say this is an American problem and that we in Canada can only shake our heads in disbelief, especially given that these killing sprees are more frequent in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. However, violence does not stop at the border as we have seen all too often.
The botched April 29 execution of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett made headlines throughout the world, leading to appeals to either abolish capital punishment in the United States or revisit the methods used to execute by lethal injection (in this case, the nature of the drugs).
Since 1976 (after a brief suspension of the death penalty by the U.S. Supreme Court), over 1,000 people have been executed and over 3,000 are currently on death row. Presently, there are only 18 U.S. states that have abolished the death penalty altogether.
U.S. President Barack Obama has asked Attorney General Eric Holder to look into the circumstances surrounding the execution in Oklahoma. However, there will likely be little change resulting from this initiative. Obama is not an abolitionist himself, and individual states have the upper hand on this issue.
Proponents for or against capital punishment weighed in on Sunday talk shows, such as “Meet the Press” and “This Week”. The views ranged from limiting the categories of murders subject to the death penalty to the use of drugs tested and approved to avoid future botched executions—not too encouraging for those who oppose capital punishment and want a wider debate.
On April 7, 2014, Québec voters chose to elect a majority Liberal government, and handed the pro-independence Parti Québécois (PQ) its worst defeat ever. Since then, speculation has surfaced about the future of the Québec independence movement.
In his first post-election press conference, Québec’s new premier, Philippe Couillard, struck a positive note when he was asked whether the idea of Québec independence (separation) was over. An ardent federalist, Premier Couillard astutely responded that you could not kill an idea. And he’s right both in fact and in tone.
The dream of an independent Québec has its origins in history, from the early settlers who followed Québec’s founder, Samuel de Champlain, to the British Conquest of 1760—where the struggle for survival and identity became the central theme within French Canada’s polity for the next two centuries, and beyond.
By the early 1960s, pro-independence political parties surfaced in Québec, in line with the progressive forces dominating the political debate of the day. The so-called “Quiet Revolution,” led by the progressive Liberal Party of Premier Jean Lesage, ushered in dramatic reforms in the economic, health, cultural, and educational sectors. With it came the rise of a democratic pro-independence movement that in 1968 merged into a political party—the Parti Québécois, led by former prominent Liberal minister René Lévesque.
After just 18 months at the head of a minority government, Québec Premier Pauline Marois went down to a stunning defeat in Québec's April 7 elections. The governing Parti Québécois (PQ), hoping to form a majority government and leading in the polls in early March, dropped from 54 seats to 30, and saw its popular vote numbers decrease from 32 percent to 25 percent. Premier Marois also lost her seat and immediately resigned on election night. The Québec Liberal party will now form a majority government, and its mandate extends until October 2018.
While subscribing to the adage that “campaigns matter,” I must acknowledge that this is the most spectacular turnaround in Québec election campaign history. This marks the fifth consecutive election that the pro- independence PQ receives less than 35 percent of the popular vote, and it has suffered four defeats in the last five contests. With a leadership race now in the offing, the often fractious PQ is in for some trying times.
Since Hillary Clinton’s visit to Montreal on March 18, Montrealers are convinced that we were in the presence of the next President of the United States. She was her usual, poised self, inspiring with her thoughts, and reassuring with her experience and knowledge. Most polls that make it to Canadian media indicate strong support for Hillary against all potential Republican challengers. So, what can stop her from becoming the first female President of the United States?
For one thing, it is likely that she will face a heavily funded Republican Party and also endure a barrage of attacks ranging from the scandals associated with Bill Clinton’s presidency to the events in Benghazi. Considering the criticisms by more hawkish GOP members like Senator John McCain on Obama’s foreign policies, it will not be long before Hillary’s tenure as Secretary of State is associated with such criticisms.
It is clear that the Republicans expect to win both Houses in the 2014 midterm elections, leaving the 2016 victory over the White House as their next target. While factions such as the Tea Party and Libertarians get most of the media’s attention, it is likely that the GOP is already planning to support a more moderate standard bearer to challenge Mrs. Clinton in 2016. With New Jersey Governor Chris Christie embroiled in the Bridgegate scandal, the name of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is already beginning to surface.
The Republican brand has taken a beating in recent years—the Bush Presidency ended poorly and the party seems out of the mainstream on issues such as gay marriage, abortion and immigration reform—and was also decisively beaten by Obama in 2008 and 2012. However, in recent months Republicans in congress have reached deals with their Democratic colleagues and compromised on a budget to avoid another government shutdown. This illustrates a willingness to adopt more moderate positions, which can only help the Republican presidential nominee of 2016.
It may not be as dramatic as “Mr. Smith goes to Washington,” but Hillary Clinton’s conference at the Montreal Board of Trade Leadership Series on Tuesday had all the trappings of someone on the move towards the big prize in Washington. Unlike Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Nicholas Sarkozy, Tony Blair, and Rudy Giuliani, who participated in the Series after their active political careers, Mrs. Clinton was seen as a “leader with a future.” Will she or will she not run in 2016?
The event attracted over 4,000 patrons as well as the three major Québec political party leaders, who interrupted their election campaign to listen to Secretary Clinton, whom most of the attendees hoped will be the next President of the U.S.A. She won over the room with her presence, garnering a standing ovation before she even spoke. The conference was composed of an address given by Mrs. Clinton followed by a question and answer session.
In her speech, she spoke about women’s issues and the impact of integrating women into the economy, illustrating how studies show a marked increase in a country’s GDP if women are fully integrated and become active economic participants. It is clear that her work in philanthropy will continue to be focused on helping women in all spheres of human activity. Needless to say, her message was well received by the audience.
During the Q and A session two women, Mrs. Clinton, and the CEO of GazMétro, Sophie Brochu, spoke at length about economic issues, covering topics such as paid maternity leave in the U.S., relations between Canada and the U.S., the crisis in Ukraine, and civic engagement. The discussion was undoubtedly inspiring for many in the room.
If there is one election campaign that usually resonates across Canada outside of a national election, it is the one held in the province of Québec (a federated state). This has been the case since the 1960s when the modern age of Québec politics and the growing impact of television converged. A strong thrust for major progressive reforms advocated by the Liberal government of the day, and the emergence of a strong nationalist fervor dominated the campaigns. The political effervescence of the day resulted in the creation of pro-Québec independence party with a social democratic agenda in 1968. It was named the Parti Québécois (PQ).
In the early 1970s the pro-independence and highly nationalist PQ became a growing force. By 1976, they formed a majority government and committed to have a referendum that would result in an independent Québec and the breaking up of Canada as we know it. Since then, the PQ has been in (1976-1985/1994-2003/2012-) and out of power but when in power, they tend to promote Québec’s political separation from a federal Canada. There have been two referenda in Quebec (1980,1995) and the pro-independence forces have lost both.
In September 2012, the PQ formed a minority government and has worked since then to win a majority by building up support. On March 5, Québec Premier Pauline Marois asked Québec’s Lieutenant Governor to dissolve the National Assembly for an election to be held on April 7. A majority would give the PQ the reins to push for Québec independence and possibly stronger advocacy of language legislation to protect the French language (Québec’s official and majority language).
The Sochi Games are over and Russian President Vladimir Putin is back to business as usual. The decision to use Russian troops following the Ukraine’s establishment of a new government is reminiscent of Cold War politics and Putin’s disregard for international law.
In reaction, the Canadian government has already chosen to recall its ambassador to Russia. Through President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, the U.S. government has also warned that there will be consequences to Putin’s response to the change of government in Kiev.
In recent weeks, the Western world has seen the street reaction in Kiev’s Independence Square to now former President Victor Yanukovich’s decision to choose a Putin-directed economic deal over one from the European Union. The violence ordered by Yanukovich to quell the protesters only intensified and inflamed the degree of opposition. Many in the West following the Olympics in Sochi were stunned by how quickly the ‘’street revolution’’ replaced Yanukovich and installed a new government in accordance with the Ukrainian constitution (impeaching Yanukovich and releasing a prominent political opponent were both legal and constitutional).
Certainly, Putin’s objective to present the best face of Russia to the world during Sochi suffered a major setback. While invading and taking control of Crimea may give him the upper hand against a cash–strapped Ukraine with a new provisional government, it does little to show the emergence of a new Russia. Already, the anti-gay law and the release of political opponents from prison depicted the calculation of a ruthless and inward–looking leader.
As the North American leaders Stephen Harper, Barack Obama and Enrique Peña Nieto meet in Mexico City this week, we can expect smiles and all the rhetoric about intensifying the relationship between the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) partners. While the trade numbers justify applauding and celebrating the NAFTA agreement 20 years after its inauguration (January 1994), there remains a lot of “behind the scenes” tension, conflict and unresolved issues.
For Canada, NAFTA has been a positive development. In 2010, trilateral trade represented $878 billion, which is a threefold expansion of trade since 1993. Mexico now represents Canada’s first Latin American partner in trade, and we are Mexico’s second most important trade partner in the world. Bilateral trade has expanded at a rate of 12.5% yearly to attain $30 billion in 2010. Canadian investment in Mexico is now estimated at over $10 billion. In short, both countries have benefitted from the deal.
This being said, it is generally acknowledged that both Canada and Mexico invest more time, energy, and resources in pursuing bilateral relations with the world’s number one economy, the United States. As a result, some outstanding issues such as Canada’s imposition of visas on Mexican tourists continue to be a major irritant for the Mexican government. The continuing disputes on respective beef import bans also continue to create tension between the two countries.
Just this past weekend, Canada’s highly respected Globe and Mail had the following headlines: “Mexico has stern messages for Harper” and “Canada-Mexico relations merit more than forced smiles”. Clearly, the relationship is strained.
If there is one issue that has pitted the Canadian government against a U.S. administration in recent years, it has been the Keystone Pipeline XL project. The project is meant to transport crude oil from the Alberta oil sands to the Gulf of Mexico. Final approval of the trans-border pipeline rests with President Obama.
It is fair to say that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was hoping that the Obama administration would decide to approve the project during its first term in office. In addition, the Canadian prime minister showed remarkable restraint when President Obama was facing reelection in 2012, knowing the president had to wrestle with a portion of his political base. Instead, Harper used discreet diplomacy.
Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer proved to be an effective spokesperson and promoter. Having a strong environmental background, Doer pushed the case in a methodical manner with U.S. legislators and administration officials behind the scenes. The case for Keystone and North American energy security can be compelling.
The State of the Union (SOTU) address can be considered an institutionalized “bully pulpit” for the President of the United States. It is delivered yearly on the last Tuesday in January. As expected, the President forcefully made his case for new proposals to Congress before a primetime television audience.
President Obama’s speech was delivered in the midst of low approval numbers (43 percent), and after what many have termed 2013--Obama’s annus horribilis. Beginning the sixth year of his presidency with his Democratic Party bracing for a potentially tough mid-term election cycle, it is fair to speculate about whether Obama is already facing a premature lame duck status.
For those of us north of the border, we tend to follow the SOTU with keen interest, but very rarely expect to see Canada in the forefront. The battle over the Keystone Oil pipeline project is of interest, but judging from the President’s general statements about U.S. energy, Canadian officials were not given any indication of a decision coming soon. The President spoke of the progress made due to his energy policies, the rising importance of renewable energy sources, and stated emphatically that “climate change is a fact”. For the opponents of Keystone, these comments were likely encouraging. For the proponents, it seems the wait is not yet over.
In a recent blog, I described Canada’s new and emerging American economic challenge with our neighbor to the south as it was heading towards energy self-sufficiency with its consequent impact on the manufacturing sector of its economy. While Canada has increased its trade with new partners in recent years and is actively pursuing new markets for its products through free trade agreements, I concluded by saying that the United States remains our number one export nation and this will not change in the near future.
On the political front, there are few relationships more stable and predictable than that of Canada and the U.S. We have fought wars together, have done peace missions together, have shared intelligence on national and continental security matters, and generally have had compatible national interests. The post-World War II years have seen some differences between these two neighbors, but none significant enough to doubt the depth of trust, commonality of interest, and shared commitment. At least until recently.
The current trip by Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, with a huge delegation of government officials and business people to the Middle East, including Israel, Jordan and the West Bank, has raised speculation that Canada has steadfastly decided on a go-it-alone policy at a crucial moment as U.S. diplomacy is actively pursuing peace in the region. The reception offered to the Canadian visitors by the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu is unmatched in recent memory and Prime Minister Harper has reciprocated with an unequivocal endorsement of Israel’s conditions for peace. Some observers in Canada are asking: is Canada more supportive of the Israeli government’s negotiating position than the brokering efforts of the U.S.?
The Canada-Israel bond contrasts with the frosty relationship between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama. Considering the Israeli Prime Minister’s warmth to the Republican Party and its 2012 Presidential nominee, Governor Mitt Romney, and his public lecturing of President Obama, Netanyahu’s enthusiastic praise for Harper’s policy seems meant to convey an implicit mistrust of the U. S. government in its handling of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Clearly, this did not seem to be a factor in the Canadian Prime Minister’s trip.
Since the Edward Snowden–National Security Agency (NSA) affair exploded in the media last summer, some world leaders, such as Angela Merkel of Germany, have since discovered that they were under some surveillance by the U.S. security apparatus. The negative reaction that followed the German chancellor discovering the bugging of her cell phone is evidence that NSA policies are more than an infringement of privacy if they have created a diplomatic incident with a major ally to the Obama administration.
NSA methods seem to be out of control when a country is caught spying on its allies. Concerned about this type of fallout, the Obama administration, along with its outside NSA review panel, is now considering sweeping changes to existing policies.
Just over the holiday season, The New York Times made the case for clemency for the former NSA contractor. British newspaper The Guardian, which has been the conduit of many of Edward Snowden’s sensational bombshells, called for an outright pardon by U.S. President Barack Obama.
What started out as a “hero versus traitor” debate about the actions of Edward Snowden is now becoming one about whether an individual whistleblower who broke the law while purportedly acting in defense of the U.S. constitution (the Fourth Amendment) should be tried for a 'crime' created by a governmental institution.
If 2013 saw a rebound in the Liberal brand nationally, how will 2014 fare for the ruling Conservatives on the federal scene? A year ago, the Conservative government, despite some good economic numbers, was facing a resurgent Liberal party in the midst of a leadership race with the emergence of the charismatic and likeable Justin Trudeau leading all other contenders. By the end of 2013, Trudeau had established his standing in the polls leading both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and official opposition leader Tom Mulcair.
The Canadian Senate scandal erupted in the spring of 2013, where three Conservative senators were accused of spending irregularities. They eventually left the Conservative caucus and were suspended from their duties. However, the scandal, along with the Trudeau leadership victory, marred what could have been a good year for the ruling Tories.
With the economy undergoing modest growth, most seemed appreciative of Harper’s economic management. And just a few weeks ago, Canada concluded a free trade agreement (yet to be ratified) with the European Union. Still, by the end of 2013, the Tories were facing disapproval numbers hovering over the 60 percent mark, and had 29-30 percent voter choice number (voter intention).
The Tory prospects for 2014 may rest with how the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals perform with their respective bases (generally progressive), and their appeal to disenchanted voters.
During the course of the first leg of the Mandela funeral celebrations last week, one event made news around the world—U.S. President Barack Obama shaking hands with Cuban President Raul Castro. Speculation immediately surfaced about whether it was a planned event, and whether it meant an eventual new beginning for Cuban‒U.S. relations.
Judging from the reactions of both presidents’ spokespeople, it was a circumstantial meeting. To not shake hands would have been more significant.
Back in the spring of 2012, both Canada and the United States could not agree with their Latin American and Caribbean partners on a communiqué about the outcome of the sixth Summit of the Americas—in part because both the Canadian and American leaders opposed the formal inclusion of Cuba at the next summit. Last week’s event between Obama and Castro should not be interpreted as a change of heart.
Yet, basking in the accolades and homages to Nelson Mandela and his spirit, one cannot escape the thought that Mandela himself would have approved of the gesture as a first step to an eventual normalization of relations between these two antagonists.
The tributes to Nelson Mandela will continue to pour in over the next few days, as dignitaries make their way to pay their final respects to the leader who did more to transform Africa than any other in recent memory. His life story is now becoming more familiar by the day, and the upcoming film about his life will only add to the remarkable achievements of the man called Madiba.
We in Canada have always had a special place in our hearts for Nelson Mandela. The first country Mandela visited after his release from prison was Canada. The prime minister of the day, Brian Mulroney, was the principal world leader pushing for sanctions against the white supremacist government of South Africa, which ultimately brought the downfall of apartheid. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien later made Mandela a citizen of Canada.
When the tributes are done and world leaders have made sense of Mandela’s life and legacy, what will remain? Will there be primarily a focus on his achievements as a transformational and inspirational leader? Or, will there be a larger lesson—one that will transcend the ages and inspire future generations?
Without him, South Africa would not be where it is today—a multiracial democracy after years of apartheid and oppression. Yet a healthy and conscious Nelson Mandela would be the first to acknowledge that his work remains unfinished, and that the South Africa of today has not fulfilled the promise and the hopes of its visionary leader.
Obama’s sinking approval numbers one year into his second term have led some observers to conclude that the presidency has seen its best days. For the first time, the President’s “trustworthy” factor is deficient, and talk of the second-term curse has already made its way into the daily media jargon.
The Obamacare computer glitch has since been compared to Bush’s Katrina—and because it is the president’s signature achievement, pundit talk has already surfaced about a failed presidency. We in Canada have always liked Barack Obama and hoped he would be a successful president, but now many are asking, “Is it too late for Obama?”
Clearly, this has been a difficult year for the Obama administration–the IRS targeting of the Tea Party, a return on the Benghazi fiasco, the Edward Snowden and National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance controversy, the government shutdown in September, and the failed Obamacare rollout.
As we are about to enter 2014, midterm elections and potential lame-duck status for the sitting president are on the horizon. Some of it is self-inflicted, but despite the Republicans’ failed strategy related to the government shutdown, they still believe that they have cornered Obama and ensured for themselves a pathway to maintaining the House and capturing the Senate next November. Only winning the White House in 2016 would remain to complete the trifecta.
On November 25, Canadians went to the polls in four by-elections—two in Manitoba, one in Québec and one in Ontario. The results were not dramatic, as they maintained the same distribution of seats in Canada’s House of Commons. The Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper kept its two Manitoba seats—albeit with highly reduced margins. The Liberals, led by new leader Justin Trudeau, won both the Ontario and the Québec seats.
What made news was the fact that the Liberals captured second place in the Manitoba contests, leaving the New Democratic Party (NDP) to ponder whether they are losing their hold as the alternative to the governing Tories.
Harper’s party is still mired in the Senate scandal from last spring, which involved alleged spending infractions by former Conservative Senators Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin—then part of the Conservative caucus.
To the opposition parties, it’s the scandal that keeps on giving, as daily revelations dominate the newswires. The prime minister is finding out the hard way the Watergate scandal lesson—the “cover-up” is usually more damaging than the “crime.” Evasive answers, contradictions and improvisation have amplified what should have been an isolated case of misbehaving senators (since expelled from the Tory caucus) into a full-blown scandal.
Conservatives have suffered the blowback in recent national polls, and the by-elections results confirmed that the government is in troubled waters. What may be encouraging to the government strategists, however, is that the Tory fall in the polls cannot really be attributed to the government’s major agenda item: the economy. Rather, it is the scandal and how the government conducts its business in the light of the scandal that are the source of the current rejection. With two years to go until the next election, there is plenty of time to adjust and recover—or so the Tories think.
It has been said that if Iran develops a nuclear bomb, the world will become more dangerous than at any time since the height of the Cold War. The interim accord between Iran, the five members of the UN Security Council and Germany is meant to address this fear. The accord sets specific and significant limitations on Iran’s nuclear capability and development (that is, to freeze Iran’s nuclear program) with UN inspections in return for some temporary sanction relief for the Iranian government. The six-month agreement is temporary and is intended to provide a foundation for a long-term settlement beyond this deadline.
Already, the reactions approving or opposing the deal have come forward swiftly. From U.S. media coverage, one would think that the deal is only between the U.S. and Iran, ignoring the work and commitment of the other partners. Remember Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany are partners to this agreement. Sure, the Obama Administration is at the center of this high stakes game and Secretary of State John Kerry has played an instrumental role. However, it must be emphasized that the deal remains a first step involving the UN’s permanent Security Council members, and the dialogue is meant to continue.
The strongest and most strident voice opposing the accord has come from Israel and its Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. This was not unexpected, and may not be totally negative. Iran must realize that this recent development is not a free pass to sanction relief as it has earned the mistrust through its past actions. Israel, however, cannot lose sight of its ultimate objective—no nuclear weapon has been developed by Iran yet, and the dialogue has begun. Israeli President and Nobel Peace Laureate, Shimon Peres, was more balanced and constructive in his reaction, saying that results will matter more than words.
Fifty years ago, I was entering university when a tragic event with worldwide repercussions occurred: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Many who lived through that day and the following three days can recall where they were, what they were doing and how they felt.
Besides the United States, Canadians probably felt the pain most vividly. JFK had visited us earlier in his presidency and described us as neighbors, allies, partners, and friends. No relationship was closer and more interdependent. He had effectively seduced us on that visit.
Since his death, numerous historical accounts have focused on the theories about his assassination, the myths about the Kennedy years in the White House—the so-called “Camelot” era—and the successes and failures of his presidency. Even after all these years, the JFK mystique still captivates our imagination.
JFK was, above all, a modern man. Elected president in 1960 at age 43, he was the first U.S. president to be born in the 20th century. Young, handsome and charismatic, he was the first president to do regular televised press conferences. With his natural charm, he was able to display vision, firmness and humor. By all accounts, he was a natural for the television age.
Above all, JFK knew how to use the power of words to inspire and to give direction. His words still resonate after all these years: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”; “Never fear to negotiate, but never negotiate out of fear”; “Wherever we may be, all free men are citizens of Berlin—Ich bin ein Berliner”; We choose to go to the moon in this decade not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”
On Friday, October 25, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani spoke at Montreal’s Board of Trade on the eve of the Montreal mayoral election.
The Board of Trade, anticipating the fervor of the final stretch of the campaign for a new mayor, chose to invite Giuliani for his take on how to revive Canada’s second largest city after a year of upheaval in which two mayors were forced out of office and a new election is scheduled for November 3.
Against a backdrop of corruption investigations, crumbling infrastructure and a general feeling of decline, Giuliani’s presence was most welcome. While the former mayor was careful not to appear smug or condescending, he did outline what he considered to have been the formula for his success in reviving the fortunes of New York City.
Having a vision and a sense of direction for your city is the first major ingredient for success, Giuliani said. When he took over in the early 90s in New York, the crime rate was high and people were leaving the city. When he left office shortly after 9-11, crime was down 80 percent and people were coming back to the city.
To measure the progress of a city, Giuliani emphasized the need for both accountability and measurable goals. He recognized that there were risks in this approach, but said that one should govern as if it is a single mandate and that the population will respect the efforts even if the results are inconclusive. Transformational governance, says Rudy, requires taking risks even at the prospect of failure and ultimate electoral defeat.
While thousands of federal workers in the U.S. went back to work today after grappling with the government shutdown and debt ceiling crisis, Canada’s Parliament has just now reopened for business, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s second Throne Speech since his party won a majority government mandate in May 2011.
Coming at mid-term, the speech has been properly described as a new beginning for the Harper government. He outlined consumer-friendly measures such as reducing the gap between cross-border prices on items purchased in the U.S. and greater subscriber freedom in purchasing cable TV packages. In addition, he announced more law and order policies to reinforce his conservative base. All this was presented in the usual pomp of a Speech from the Throne.
The past year has seen the Harper administration facing its most serious crises since it first took office in 2006. Election irregularities in the 2011 campaign have led to departures within the ranks, and a Senate scandal involving three Conservative senators dominated the spring session. Current polls place the Harper Conservatives behind the third party in the House of Commons—the Liberals, under new leader Justin Trudeau. While there is plenty of time for a resurgence before the 2015 general election, the Speech from the Throne delivered on October 16 does represent a potential second wind.
The Conservative victory in May 2011 was so impressive that some seasoned political observers saw the emergence of a new coalition made up of law and order types and Canadians with conservatives values— one which could transform the Conservatives into “the natural governing party” of the nation, as the Liberals were through most of the 20th century. Harper’s Conservative party is also seen as the most ideological party of its nature since Confederation.
Some pundits have postulated that the 2011 shift to the Right may develop into a permanent phenomenon. After all, in that year, the Liberals dropped to third place (Conservatives occupied 161 seats in the House of Commons while Liberals occupied 34) and seemed decimated in key strongholds across the country, including Québec and the greater Toronto area. The progressive view seemed in search of a principal voice. Enter the new official opposition party—the New Democrats (NDP), who are hoping to replace the Liberals as the alternative to the Conservatives.
As the U.S. government shutdown continues in its second week and there remains a looming possibility of a Congressional gridlock over the debt ceiling on October 17, much attention has been directed to the first-term Republican Senator from Texas, Ted Cruz. The Calgary-born Cruz has been dominating the headlines for the past three weeks with his 21-hour faux-filibuster against the Affordable Care Act (popularly deemed “Obamacare”), and his adamant stand against the president’s health care reform as a “job killer.” In so doing, the “Senator from Canada” (Cruz was born to an American mother and a Cuban father in Alberta, Canada. He currently holds both U.S. and Canadian citizenship.) has become the de facto leader of Tea Party Republicans in the House of Representations and the face of the GOP.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner seems unable to break Cruz’s hold on the Tea Party caucus. As a result, defunding Obamacare has become the leitmotiv for Republican support to end the shutdown. Speaker Boehner keeps asking for a conversation with President Obama to break the stalemate, but it seems his most intransigent opponent is within his own ranks. Cruz, however, may be calling the tune on this Republican shutdown position, but he is not without his detractors.
Republican heavyweights such as anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist and Bush operative Karl Rove have openly questioned the Cruz-led strategy to tie a budget vote to replacing the 2012 election result on Obamacare or making it inoperative. Some have openly speculated that a fratricidal war within Republican ranks could cost the GOP dearly at the polls in the 2014 midterm elections. Polls, while spreading the blame to both parties, indicate greater disapproval with the Republicans’ performance on this issue. It is undoubtedly a risky strategy.
Clearly, Cruz has ambitions beyond the shutdown and the debt ceiling fight—possibly even the next presidential cycle in 2016. While many Republicans are increasingly uncomfortable with his bravado, his leadership on this issue and his media presence are making Speaker Boehner look weak and vulnerable. This is a unique situation where the Speaker of the House is being held hostage by a first-term Senator of the same party from another arm of the legislature. Meanwhile, the Tea Party is keeping Boehner’s feet to the fire, despite his obvious inclination to find a compromise with Obama.
With the U.S. administration now engaged in trade talks regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and President Obama’s intention, expressed in his last State of Union address, to embark on a free trade arrangement with the European Union, it is clear that trade policy in the U.S. is in for a major shift. The Canada–U.S. commercial relationship, as we know it, will surely be in for a change. When you trade $1.5 billion of goods daily, neither country can remain indifferent if new commercial arrangements modify the status quo.
If we add to this the emerging energy revolution—related to shale gas and shale oil—that is bound to influence the U.S. economy, we can conclude that the U.S.’ major trading partners will soon face new challenges. It is becoming more apparent that the U.S. is heading toward energy self-sufficiency. By 2017, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the U.S. is expected to be the largest oil producer in the world. By 2020, it could be a net exporter of natural gas, and in 2030, the U.S. could be a net exporter of petroleum. This will have a direct impact on prices of those commodities, the cost of doing business and the potential growth of the U.S. manufacturing sector.
No one doubts the ingenuity and the innovative character of the U.S. economy. With a competitive advantage sparked by this new energy picture, one can conclude that the American economy may be in for important, positive and significant growth. Despite the uncertainty often associated with its domestic politics regarding deficit and debt issues, the U.S. economy is certain to be gradually transformed. The current Canada–U.S. commercial relationship, which is the largest in the world, will also be directly affected. Canada cannot afford to ignore what this new American challenge represents for its own future.
For Canada, this will require an even greater effort to diversify and pursue more aggressively new or alternative markets. It will also have to engage in more research and development, aim for greater productivity, attract more immigrants, and invest in greater manpower training. With our energy, our multiple natural resources , and our competitive high-tech sectors, Canada has already engaged with moderate success in diversifying its markets.
Last week’s address to the nation by U.S. President Barack Obama showed the complexity of the debate regarding Syria and the chemical attack of August 21. Military strikes were still on the table during Obama’s address, but at the end of week Russia and the United States had come to an agreement regarding chemical weapons in Syria and the renewed role of the United Nations in eventually eliminating them. While still open to doubt and debate about its impact and its results, it is easier to deal with diplomacy, even if it fails, than a potential war with no clear objectives or exit strategy.
Less than a month after the atrocious use of such weapons against a civilian population, Bashar al-Assad’s government now acknowledges the possession of such weapons when he spent years denying he had them. This is no small feat, since Russia—the prime supplier of such armaments—began the process with the U.S. after days of attributing the attack to the rebels.
U.S. domestic politics, being what they are, are once again the subject of renewed partisanship (the GOP still has no coherent policy on Syria), division on means and objectives, and a general lack of public support for any military enterprise against Syria. Obama’s decision to ask Congress may have been in line with his campaign rhetoric of 2008, but it had a lot to do with the British government losing a vote for the first time in 150 years on military action. Since then, Obama’s detractors in Congress have given Russian President Vladimir Putin the credit for getting Obama “off the hook.” They go a step further by calling Obama weak.
The fact is that the U.S. population is war-weary and skeptical about its leaders in both parties, as well as claims about the national interest. When we go back to Lyndon Baines Johnson and the Vietnam War, Reagan and the Iran-Contra saga, or Bush’s claims of weapons of mass destruction to bring about regime change in Iraq, it is not surprising that Obama was facing an uphill battle with the general public to get an endorsement for military strikes.
With the G20 summit completed, the world is now focused on the United States Congress, and whether it will vote in favor of a resolution authorizing President Barack Obama to launch military strikes on Syria. Since the British Parliament voted down a similar motion by Prime Minister David Cameron to involve Britain with the U.S. in a military enterprise against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons, Obama decided to ask for Congressional support. The outcome for support in the war-weary United States is far from certain.
Normally, the United Nations would be the ideal forum to debate any contraventions to the 1925 Geneva Convention, which made the use of chemical weapons a war crime. However, both Russia and China have indicated they will use their veto power over any American resolution. With UN inspectors soon to divulge their findings following the chemical attack on innocent victims, it may be a wise course for the U.S. to share its intelligence with the UN on who perpetrated this heinous act. From all indications, the U.S. case is solid.
Clearly, President Obama understands the stakes. He, who made the whole Iraq war imbroglio a defining element of his candidacy back in 2008, knows that his countrymen would remind him of his views regarding the Bush years. To go to Congress was a wise and necessary choice. And it gives him needed time to explore backchannel diplomacy.
With polls showing little support for military action in Syria, the Obama administration will have to present a much more compelling case for engagement. International support, while significant in some quarters, remains elusive. Eleven of the G20 countries, including Canada, support the U.S. president’s intention to use military force, but a closer reading indicates the support is varied in tone and conditional in practice. History can also be a guide in making the case, but it cannot be a doctrine, a strategy nor a policy. It can only serve as a reference.
Fifty years ago (August 28), Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his legacy “I have a dream” speech. Events are planned in Washington at the Lincoln Memorial, and elsewhere, commemorating this landmark address. Speakers are expected to highlight Dr. King’s philosophy for promoting change, how the civil rights movement and its accomplishments defined modern America, and the work that remains to be done. President Barack Obama will speak, honoring the work of Dr. King.
Five years ago, the Democratic Party chose as its nominee, Barack Obama, who went on to become the first African-American president. Hope and change were in the air. While much of the optimism associated with Obama’s victory has been tempered through the rigors of governing, it was no small achievement on the part of the American electorate. Re-electing him in November 2012 consolidated this historic accomplishment.
Surely, Dr. King would consider the Obama election very much a part of the dream articulated 50 years ago but it is more important to recall how the famed civil rights leader led his quest for equality and justice. Above all, he was an inspiration to his followers by his example, and he did it through the power of his words and his actions. In “Letters from a Birmingham Jail,” he stated that ‘’injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’’ In “I have a dream,” Dr. King expressed the hope that all should be judged “by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.” Powerful words indeed, and they remain as relevant today.
In addition to words, Dr. King was a man of action—a man of peaceful action. Inspired by the example of Mahatma Gandhi, King’s chosen tactics included pacific resistance such as boycotts, marches and sit-ins. To those in authority who used water hoses and police dogs to break up peaceful demonstrations, King and his followers responded with acts of nonviolence—just as Rosa Parks refused in 1955 to sit in the back of a bus. Dr. King resisted segregation and prejudice with a firm confidence in the righteousness of his beliefs.
Normally, a gay pride parade would go unnoticed in Montreal. Actually, in many cities across North America, we have become accustomed to the annual ritual of the multicolored, multi-uniformed and occasionally shocking outfits in favor of gay pride and gay rights. While much progress has been made in the last decade to advance the cause through court rulings and legislation, there remains more to do about attitudes and policies.
On August 18 in Montreal, however, something important happened. The representatives and the involvement of all political parties in both the Canadian House of Commons and the Quebec legislature (National Assembly) were present in some form at the event.
Granted, there was an electoral consideration as gay voters need to be courted. Being absent in this context would have been news. Only Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was not present because of his annual tour in the Canadian North. Yet, his government contributed significant funds to make the event happen. His primary opponents in the Canadian Parliament, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, were highly visible throughout the parade route. Quebec Premier Pauline Marois became the first premier in her province’s history to attend such an event. The remaining parties in the Quebec parliament were also there.
We can only applaud such an occurrence. It is a sign that gay rights and gay pride are becoming more a part of the political mainstream in Canada. The Premier of Ontario (Canada’s largest province), Kathleen Wynne, is openly gay. Same sex marriage has been a fact of life in Canada since 2005 when Canada became the fourth country and the first outside Europe to recognize marriage for gay and lesbian couples. To see active politicians of all stripes openly marching in this annual event is a testament to the road travelled.
In recent weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made headlines in harboring and eventually granting asylum to National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden, resisting U.S. overtures for a peace initiative in halting the Syrian civil war and passing anti-gay rights legislation in the buildup for next year's Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
A few days ago, President Barack Obama cancelled an upcoming summit with Putin in Moscow. Meanwhile, after condemning the Russia government for its pre-Olympic anti-gay stand, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has just indicated its willingness to look favorably on gay Russian asylum seekers who claim to be the victims of persecution.
The deterioration of the Russia-U.S. relationship has led some observers to question whether we are entering a new era of Cold War politics. Some politicians, such has U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham, have also hinted about a boycott of the Winter Games in Sochi.
Clearly, the relationship has not been as frosty since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but a new Cold War is not and should not be on the horizon. In the last decade, the U.S. and Russia have agreed on a number of key issues, including backing the war in Afghanistan in 2001, ratifying the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) on nuclear weapons, and imposing important sanctions on Iran.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.