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Published: Wednesday, 3/16/2005

Drums across the border

ALTHOUGH President Bush is slated to meet with Prime Minister Paul Martin of Canada and President Vicente Fox of Mexico later this month at his Texas ranch, the relationship between this country and its two North American neighbors has been anything but smooth during the Bush presidency.

Both countries declined to participate in the Iraq war, and former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien breached normal protocol by not at least passing a message on to Mr. Bush before announcing the decision on Iraq in the Canadian parliament.

The United States and Canada have too much in common and too much at stake to allow irritants to disturb a stable relationship and the cordial ties that have marked diplomacy between the two countries since at least the mid-20th century and actually long before that.

Trade issues continue to fester: the U.S. protectionist stance against import of Canadian soft-wood lumber that is considered a better product available at lower prices, and the current ban on imports of Canadian beef to the United States.

Lumber tariffs have cost Canadian shippers $4 billion so far, and the beef and cattle ban has cost the Canadian beef industry $7 billion (and also raised meat prices in this country).

Canadian resentment generally is focused on President Bush's policies and to a considerable extent his personality. From the American point of view, Canadians have abandoned, in part for domestic political reasons, some of the policies that have linked the two countries' defense policies and led both countries to become major trading partners to the tune of $460 billion annually.

The problems with the North American Free Trade Agreement generally arise in connection with trade between this country and Mexico, but Canadians have had a long list of grievances in past decades on a number of trade issues.

In general, Americans think of Canada as a source of cold winter weather (the Alberta clippers that TV weather reporters talk about) and professional hockey players. They generally ignore what goes on "up north." And Canadians think they know what happens down south. (After all, many of them join their Yankee confreres on the annual winter treks to Florida, often by way of I-75, or, as it could be called, the Am-Can highway.)

Friction between the United States and Canada even has drawn the attention of the writers of the TV show West Wing, who follow the news closely when scripting episodes about the fictional Bartlett administration's handling of crises. One recent show portrayed the Canadian ambassador to the United States as a bumbling sort of envoy.

Actually, Americans know very little about Canada and its concerns, and Canadians, although generally quite discerning and vocal about politics in both countries, do not know as much as they thought they did about the United States and the national differences that muddle diplomatic relations between the two countries. Canada is independent, after all; it is not just a large outlying tract of land that would have voted blue in recent presidential elections.

The three North American leaders have some bridges to repair at the barbecue pits at the Bush ranch in Texas. We hope enough progress is made during these talks - after all, Mr. Bush was cordial even to the president of France during his recent trip to Europe - to warrant meetings at regular intervals.

Geography alone demands that the three countries do what they can to reduce friction. The key player is Mr. Bush, because neither Canada nor Mexico can escape or ignore the colossus that separates them.



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