Lots of smoke, very little fire
After several years of negotiations Stephen Harper and Barack Obama finally announced the North American perimeter agreement.
The agreement is not an actual treaty. Instead it is a non-binding set of sub-agreements covering many facets of the relationship between Canada and the United States.
The question is why would both governments take this approach?
From the Canadian perspective I believe the Harper government saw what happened to the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada after it rammed the FTA down the throats of Canadians and decided not to risk a repeat. It is a simple fact that although the majority of Canadians do not actively dislike the United States they also do not actively like or trust it. Making binding treaties with them that could have implications for Canadian sovereignty is fraught with risks as different groups, who do not like the US, use the general distrust of Canadians to fight that treaty and hammer the government that negotiated it.
From an American perspective the political situation in Washington is toxic and any treaty the President would put forward would be rejected on spec by the Republicans. The result would be the real possibility of the US Congress rejecting any treaty negotiated by the President and he would not want that to happen during an election year. Negotiating a binding treaty at this point would just set him up for failure.
Will this agreement significantly change anything in the Canada/US relationship? Probably not.
Without the force of law to compel the two governments to implement this agreement in full there is no incentive to do so. The really significant changes in the agreement will require legislative action in both countries to be implemented and that is just not going to happen. Even the minor changes that can be brought about by simple changes to existing regulations could be stymied by bureaucratic inertia and the lack of political will to push these changes forward.
Again in the United States, the poisoned and rancid political situation would stand in the way of any legislation to implement the major provisions of the agreement. Even if the President were to make the attempt of introducing the necessary legislation he has shown on many occasions that he lacks the spine to fight for them. Whenever he has experienced push-back from the Republicans he has caved, including for his signature initiatives. I could only imagine his reaction to Republican objections to legislation about issues that he really does not care that much about.
In Canada our government has demonstrated many times that it will only use its precious political capital on legislation that it believes will make its base happy or on legislation it believes will buy it votes. Nothing in this agreement will meet those two criteria so this government will not be pushing too hard to implement all of the provisions of it.
This agreement was more about show than substance. It was good for a photo-op but in the end it will not change much.