President Bush traveled to Canada recently on his first trip abroad since his re-election. The war in Iraq still divides the two neighboring nations that have traditionally enjoyed close cultural, economic and political ties over the years.
Many foreign policy experts described President Bush's trip last week to Ottawa and Halifax as an attempt to improve relations between the United States and Canada.
Relations between the two countries reached a low point during the later years of Prime Minister Jean Chretien's tenure (1993-2003). A great majority of Canadians opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But tensions rose even higher when Mr. Chretien decided not to send troops as part of an international coalition.
Reginald Stuart, an expert on U.S.-Canada relations at Mount Saint Vincent University (in Halifax, Nova Scotia), says relations simply ground to a halt.
"They just stopped," said Reginald Stuart. "And I know from the time that I was down in Washington DC that the senior Bush advisers in the White House just simply said: 'Fine, we'll wait for the next guy [next Prime Minister]. We're just not going to bother dealing - we'll leave everything up to the lower levels, to the embassies, and the staffers, and the ambassadors. And things will continue, but we'll wait for the next person.' And that turned out to be Mr. Martin."
Paul Martin succeeded Jean Chretien as Canadian prime minister in December of last year. He retained his position at the head of a minority government, following parliamentary elections last June.
Gill Troy, professor of Political Science at McGill University (in Montreal) says relations between Washington and Ottawa should get better.
"The tensions that had accumulated had a lot to do with the personal differences between Bush and Chretien," said Gill Troy. "And simply by having Paul Martin come in and say he's not going to be Chretien, that changed the tone. And, I think, when Bush was re-elected, his desire to make this the first official visit - his visit to Canada - was a way of saying 'thank you' to Paul Martin for not being Jean Chretien."
While Mr. Martin is indeed not Jean Chretien, Canada's position on sending troops to Iraq remains the same. But Professor Stuart from Mount Saint Vincent University says the recent Bush-Martin meeting tried to put those differences aside.
"What both of them were trying to do on this trip was move a bit past that," he said. "Canada has offered to help train some Iraqi policemen. It has forgiven part of the Iraqi debt to Canada that the old regime had run up, and there is talk as well of Canada sending observers for the January elections."
However, Kim Nossel, director of Political Studies at Queen's University (in Kingston, Ontario), says even sending observers might be risky for Mr. Martin's minority government.
"I'll be interested to see precisely what the terms of engagement are very simply, because of the security situation," said Kim Nossel. "A number of commentators in Canada have noted that if, for example, an observer should be kidnapped and held to ransom and executed on television, this would put the Canadian government in an absolutely impossible situation."
Mr. Nossel says, while publicly, the Canadian government is against sending troops to Iraq, Ottawa has provided logistical support to U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf.
"Basically, the Canadian government was, and the Canadian armed forces were active in the Gulf," he said. "But the Canadian government always argued that Canadian military activity in the Gulf was engaged in the war against terror, not the war against Iraq. Now, in reality, the war against terror and the war against Iraq got so conflated [combined], that what Canadians were doing in the Gulf was, you could argue, assisting the United States."
Canadians have a distinguished history in peacekeeping operations around the world, operations that are sanctioned by an international body, such as the United Nations.
In late 1956, the world faced an international crisis over the Suez Canal, following its takeover by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt in an effort to seize control of the vital canal. Tensions rose, as the conflict threatened to spread.
In a November 3, 1956, speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Canadian External Affairs Minister Lester Pearson offered a resolution creating a completely new force.
"Requests, as a matter of priority, the Secretary-General to submit to it [General Assembly] within 48 hours a plan for the setting up, with the consent of the nations concerned, of an emergency international United Nations force to secure and supervise the cessation of hostilities," said Lester Pearson.
That resolution passed overwhelmingly. It led to the creation of the United Nations Emergency Force - the U.N's first ever peacekeeping force. Its members became known as the Blue Berets, for the color of their headgear. That force was dispatched to the region, and helped defuse the crisis.
In 1957, Lester Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace prize, the only Canadian to ever win that honor.