U.S.-Canada relations: Keystone has cooled an already frosty relationship

“The United States and Canada are best friends—like it or not.”

Issues like the Keystone XL pipeline have strained an already fragile relationship. (Reuters/CP)
Issues like the Keystone XL pipeline have strained an already fragile relationship. (Reuters/CP)

Our bilateral relationship is akin to a Ferris wheel (round and round/up and down/where it stops nobody knows).

But if the sobriquet of “best friends—like it or not” is the paradigm, we are certainly well into the “not” category. Irritations are becoming problems; problems are evolving toward crises.

Perhaps our relations are more akin to living with bipolar disorder: With careful tending, good meds, and occasional professional psychiatric intervention, we negotiate the rough patches in our relations with no more than grimacing and accentuating the positives. Occasionally, however, the juxtaposition of particularly neuralgic but important substantive issues and mutual senior leadership irritation generates a crisis.

There is a rolling laundry list of niggling problems, often of the hardy perennial nature, that keep diplomats and bureaucrats busy. Over the years, these have included hanging file folders, magazine advertising, pork bellies, Pacific Coast salmon, softwood lumber—just to name a few. Some are actually solved. Others are kicked downstream. But some, like boils, become increasingly inflamed — which brings us to Keystone XL.

On its logic, Keystone really is a no-brainer. But the decision is being made by zombies. Thousands of miles of pipeline have been constructed; environmental risk assessment from State Department endorsed it; even the Nebraska Supreme Court dismissed the legal challenge. But the president, either in thrall to extreme environmentalists or convinced that Alberta oil is dirty, insists in repeating palatably inaccurate statements regarding the ultimate use of the oil and its benefits for the U.S. The result has been oil transported by rail—less safe, and grinding irritation throughout Canada.

Added to Keystone was the endless legal tangle over building another international bridge at Windsor (now started after years of obstructive delay) and the still unresolved question of paying for its U.S.-side customs plaza.

Opposing view: With humour and patience, we can remain friends

Lost in the shuffle has been recent agreement to further “thin” the border to facilitate trade/transit. And Prime Minister Harper reinforced Ottawa’s commitment to fight ISIS in Iraq-Syria. Good news is no news.

Historically, the best “match” between presidents and prime ministers has been Republicans (Reagan/Bush ‘41) with Tories (Mulroney) and/or Democrats (Clinton) with Liberals (Chretien). The worst matches have been Republicans (Nixon/Reagan) with Liberals (Trudeau) and Democrats (JFK-Obama) with Tories (Diefenbaker-Harper).

It didn’t have to be this way. Obama made his first international visit to Ottawa; relations between two, essentially private personalities, appeared collegial at various subsequent group-grope events. And Obama was highly, indeed wildly, popular in Canada.  

But to illustrate a protocol problem, Ottawa has not had Obama address Parliament in a “state visit”—there has been no such address since Clinton in 1995. Harper hasn't visited Washington as an official “state” visitor (even the last “working visit” was in February 2011) —let alone address Congress. Indeed, not since 1988 (over 25 years ago) has a Canadian PM addressed Congress.

Nor have our ambassadors smoothed the waters. The perfect U.S. ambassador for Canadian interests is one that can pick up the phone and call the president (or other senior Cabinet and/or political figures) and get the call returned. (And vice-versa for the Canadian ambassador in Washington.)

It is hard to characterize United States Ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman in such terms. We persistently send political appointees to Canada; however, Ambassador Heyman doesn’t qualify as a first-rank political appointee on the level of former governors Blanchard or Cellucci. There was a nine-month interregnum between Heyman’s appointment and arrival in Ottawa, and unfortunately, he seems to have mastered missteps rather than dossiers—suggesting Keystone was only a “scratch” on the U.S.-Canada relationship in a public exchange with former ambassador to Washington Frank McKenna.

Nor can one honestly say Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. Gary Doer is a heavy-hitter in Washington; he’s certainly not of the category of Raymond Chretien (PM Chretien’s nephew) or former Finance Minister Michael Wilson. It is difficult to imagine he has direct, personalized relations with Harper. And his “Johnny-one-note” efforts to promote Keystone resonate only with the already convinced.

Canadians are now focusing on their federal election, currently scheduled for October. Harper has won three elections, but only this past (2011) a majority, and bilateral relations will probably be on hold, unless Washington does something egregious such as definitively say “no” to the Keystone Pipeline.

One recalls the depressed man who heard a little voice saying, “Cheer up, things could be worse.” So he cheered up—and sure enough, things got worse.

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as advisor for two Army Chiefs of Staff. He has just published Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.