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  • Roland Paris

Don’t Blame Obama for ‘Losing’ Canada

Derek Burney and Fen Osler Hampson have well-deserved reputations as level-headed observers of Canada-U.S. relations. How, then, did they come to write an article so full of misjudgments on this subject? The article in question, “How Obama Lost Canada,” appeared on the website of Foreign Affairs magazine this week. As the title suggests, the authors argue that Canada-U.S. relations are suffering, and that the U.S. Administration is to blame. In fact, Burney and Hampson go further. The bilateral relationship, they contend, reached its “lowest point in decades” last year, when the Obama Administration postponed its decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, which is designed to ship Albertan bitumen to refineries in Texas. This is the first in a string of puzzling statements from the authors – statements that make for exciting reading (to the extent Canada-U.S. relations is ever exciting) but that have little basis in fact. “The state of the Canada-U.S. relationship today is sound. Yes, there are irritants, but they are no more challenging than the irritants of the past.” Between 2003 and 2005, I had the privilege of serving as an advisor on Canada-U.S. relations in the Department of Foreign Affairs and in the Privy Council Office. Relations today are no worse, and probably better, than they were then. Jean Chrétien had just declined to send Canadian troops to Iraq – the right decision, but one that nevertheless angered officials in the George W. Bush Administration, who were hoping at least for an expression of political support. (It didn’t help that Chrétien announced his decision in the House of Commons to a throng of cheering Liberal MPs.) Bush then cancelled a planned state visit to Canada. Those were difficult days. Two years later, Canada chose not to participate in the U.S. ballistic missile defence system for North America. Once again, the announcement of Canada’s position was bungled, causing unnecessary irritation in the bilateral relationship. Those were also difficult days. Are relations worse today? Burney and Hampson claim that Obama snubbed Canada when he chose to defer a decision on the Keystone pipeline until after this November’s presidential election. They further claim that approving Keystone should have been an “easy diplomatic and economic decision” for Obama.

In fact, Keystone was a very tough political call for the president, who faced strong domestic interests pulling in opposite directions, including a powerful environmental movement. Any politician worth his or her salt – perhaps even some in the Harper government – would have understood the political logic of Obama’s decision, and the fact that it was not intended to insult Canada. (What’s more, the pipeline permit application has been amended and resubmitted, and may be approved in early 2013, after the election.) Yet, Burney and Hampson portray this episode as a rebuff of historic proportions.

What about the other evidence that our bilateral relationship is at its lowest point in decades? The Obama Administration, they point out, has been “engaging in protectionism.” Shocking. The White House “failed to combat the Buy America provision in Congress’ stimulus bill.” True, that was not good news for Canada, but did Burney and Hampson expect the president to veto the entire stimulus bill (a signature item in his presidency) because it didn’t contain an exception for Canada? Obama’s political calculus apparently led him to accept an imperfect bill – half a loaf, instead of no loaf – in the hopes of fixing it later.

This was not “mistreatment” of Canada. Such incidents are troubling, but they are no more exceptional than other irritants that have cropped up, from time to time, in the long course of our relationship. We have always needed to work assiduously to fix such problems – from softwood lumber to Devils Lake – and now it’s Buy America. Nothing remarkable to see here, folks. Move along.

But wait, Burney and Hampson have more evidence of alleged U.S. mistreatment: When Canada ran for a UN Security Council seat in 2010, they assert, “the United States offered little support.” But there is something the authors don’t mention: As a matter of policy, the U.S. does not lobby for Security Council candidates, nor does it indicate which countries it will vote for. When Canada failed to win a seat in 2010, it was not the fault of the U.S. We lost that one by ourselves. Nevertheless, Burney and Hampson cite this as a “small but telling example” of Obama’s refusal to “trust and respect its loyal ally.”

The inventory of exaggerated and imagined slights continues: The U.S. has shown no interest in Canada’s proposal to develop common North American approaches and fuel standards to curtail climate emissions,” the authors claim, and the bilateral “clean energy dialogue…has become a monologue.” Not true. The U.S. Secretary of Energy and Canadian Environment Minister issued a report in 2011 documenting the outputs of this process. Further, this dialogue was renewed last week, along with a detailed action plan.

The authors also downplay two of the most important recent accomplishments in the relationship: new frameworks for Canada-U.S. cooperation on border security and regulatory affairs; and the long-awaited agreement to build a second bridge between Windsor and Detroit, the busiest border crossing for Canada-US trade. The border cooperation framework is “good news,” they say, but quickly add: “there has been little evidence to suggest that Obama remains engaged.” Obama – again? Is he the source of all problems?

Indeed, in the American political context, this article counts as a cheap shot. It appears during the U.S. presidential campaign season; it is built on dubious facts and judgements; and it hands the president’s political opponents an easy sound bite about Obama “losing Canada.”

Worse, the article purports to speak on behalf of Canadians. In truth, Canadians like Obama considerably more than Americans do, according to opinion surveys. But how many U.S. readers will question Burney and Hampson’s assertions about what Canadians purport to believe?

“…in the American political context, this article counts as a cheap shot…”

Meanwhile, the Canadian media gobbles up the narrative of U.S. mistreatment of Canada, which fits effortlessly into our Rodney Dangerfield complex: “We get no respect.” Our leading newspaper trumpets the headline, “Obama ‘Jilted’ Canada, Leading U.S. Journal Says,” as though it were the editorial board of the journal itself, and not two Canadian contributors, making this claim. What’s going on here? We feel a lack of respect from the U.S., yet we automatically lend credence to judgments of Americans – even when we are, in fact, talking to ourselves.

These are all facets of our old national insecurity complex. Unfortunately, the article by Burney and Hampson feeds on this insecurity and encourages it, by painting a false picture of Canada’s mistreatment at the hands of Barack Obama.

Here is a different picture that fits better with the facts: The state of the Canada-U.S. relationship today is sound. Yes, there are irritants, but they are no more challenging than the irritants of the past. Nor does only one country – or one leader – bear the fault for these irritants.

To observe that the state of the relationship is reasonably good is not, however, an excuse for complacency. Burney and Hampson are right to say that that the bilateral relationship requires “constant care.” This is particularly true as both countries reorient their economic focus towards the emerging markets of Asia. We need to work hard on the partnership, which will sometimes require tough bargaining and mobilizing our allies across the U.S. political system to work towards Canadian objectives.

But it would be a mistake to indulge the fantasy that Canada will ever preoccupy the U.S. to the same degree that the U.S. preoccupies Canada. We need to move beyond such conceits, stop the misdirected blame game, and get on with business.


Addendum 1: Daniel Drezner, writing on the Foreign Policy website, has cited the Burney/Hampson piece as evidence that relations between Canada and the U.S. have “cooled off considerably” since the Bush years. This is how myths are promulgated.

Addendum 2: Drezner amends his position and disavows the Burney/Hampson article, but mystifyingly repeats his contention that relations are “cooling.” Your evidence, sir? This article first appeared on the Canadian International Council’s Roundtable blog.

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