Slowly but surely, a largely forgotten ally of the U.S. is reemerging in Washington's backyard. Last month, Jean Chretien stepped down as Canada's prime minister, bringing to a close a decade of tepid ties between Ottawa and Washington. The subsequent inauguration of Mr. Chretien's replacement, Paul Martin, provides a long-overdue opening for a revitalized North American alliance.
In fact, the pillars of such a partnership are already visible. Largely ignored during the tenure of Mr. Chretien, two issues have now crept to the top of the Canada-U.S. agenda.
The first is energy. Over the past two years, a widening quest for energy security has led officials in Washington to West Africa and Russia as potential substitutes for volatile Gulf oil.
But an even more stable supply lies closer to home. At around 2.5 billion barrels daily, Canada's current total oil output already puts it ahead of most OPEC nations in terms of production. And with some 180 billion barrels in proven recoverable reserves, Canada's oil wealth rangs second only to that of Saudi Arabia.
What's more, Ottawa's energy profile is poised to expand dramatically. Production from Alberta's massive oilsands deposits alone already stands at some one million barrels per day - equivalent to one-tenth of current American daily imports, and almost half the oil the United States receives from Gulf nations daily. What's more. oilsands production is expected to double by the end of the decade. In fact, estimates suggest that Canada's oilsands could provide more than four million barrels of crude daily by 2060, and sustain that level of production for the next half century and beyond. If tapped, such additional capacity could do wonders for America's current, corrosiv dependence on the Persian Gulf, allowing Washington to slash imports from OPEC countries and reduce their influence on the U.S. economy.
American officials are beginning to take notice. U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham himself recently said it would be a "good thing" if Canada could become a much bigger supplier of oil to the United States. This public recognition of Canada's importance to American energy security might just foreshadow a monumental shift in policy - and a dramatic strengthening of the Canada-U.S. relationship.
Washington and Ottawa are also moving unmistakably closer on defence. Prime Minister Martin has already articulated plans for ambitious increases to defence spending in a move designed to reverse Canada's deepening military decline and reassert its international presence. Just as significant, he has taken steps to bolster Canadian national security, creating a "super department" unifying key national intelligence, border and port security functions under the supervision of Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan. And negotiations now underway between Ottawa and Washington could make Canada a major in one of the Bush administration's most important strategic initiatives: missile defence.
All this suggests a new, farsighted Canadian vision for hemispheric security. "We are responsible for protecting the northern half of North America and we will fulfill that responsibility," Martin recently told reporters. "It is not simply an American issue; it is a Canadian issue as well. We will exercise our responsibilities in that area." Statements like this, unheard of from Canada's leadership in recent years, will go a long way toward mending fences between Ottawa and Washington.
Such a partnership will undoubtedly require a considerable diplomatic investment on the part of both countries. Rebuilding political ties cannot be accomplished by mere rhetoric. Washington and Ottawa must match words about shared values and common interests with concrete work on energy and defence, ranging from joint committees to bilateral projects with tangible benefits for both countries. Politically, Prime Minister Paul Martin and President George Bush must also take pains to ensure that this new opportunity is not undermined by lingering tensions over issues such as Iraq and trade.
But if they are successful, the United States and Canada are likely to find that the rewards of a revived partnership far exceed their invitations.