In recent weeks, I have watched with puzzlement the commentary from some observers in Canada that the quality of the current Canada-U.S. relationship is poor. Some have gone on to assign responsibility for that alleged circumstance to President Barack Obama. I disagree.
I have been observing this relationship for decades and have been actively involved in the issues being discussed for more than 15 years. By definition, any assessment of the current relationship is in relative, not absolute, terms. In this analysis, people are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.
Lyndon Johnson and Lester Pearson had a strained relationship. Richard Nixon and Pierre Trudeau didn’t speak. Jimmy Carter never travelled to Canada as president, and George W. Bush cancelled his first bilateral trip to demonstrate his frustration. In comparison, Mr. Obama made his first foreign trip to Canada, within weeks of his inauguration. He and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have met both in the White House and around the world more than any two of our leaders in history over three years. Again, facts are persistent things.
The joint announcements and progress on the Canada-U.S. Beyond the Border and regulatory harmonization initiatives begun last year are monumental steps forward in the framework of how we co-exist on this continent. During my tenure as ambassador, we worked diligently toward similar goals. At that time, the U.S. was ready but Canada was reticent. While I like to think we laid a foundation for what has now been achieved, we didn’t close the deal. Mr. Obama and Mr. Harper (with the stalwart efforts of their respective ambassadors) did. This is no small accomplishment and it is not academic – real people and real businesses will see material progress and efficiencies for years.
On the Trans-Pacific Partnership, there seem to be many myths afoot. In fact, Canada was suggested as a participant some six years ago. In fact, Canada had the opportunity to join the discussions at their inception some seven years ago. At that time, Canada demurred for, among other reasons, a reluctance to put some issues such as agriculture policies (the Canadian Wheat Board and supply management) on the table. When Mr. Harper indicated earlier this year that the former could be on the table and addressed the latter with legislation, Canada’s request to enter the TPP negotiations was welcomed by Mr. Obama. Importantly, this process will permit long-delayed improvements to NAFTA, which dates back to the 1988 Canada-U.S. FTA. Some of the trade issues being raised by the commentators find their origin in the voids in that agreement – a result difficult to assign to Mr. Obama, who was then a private-sector lawyer.
The concerns raised about Buy America’s limitations again do not support the theory. Canada received an exemption (as it should) from the U.S. federal stimulus law. When Congress passed the bill, including a Buy America provision, the White House worked out a unique exemption for Canada. It is only recently that the two governments have seriously considered reciprocity here.
With respect to energy pipelines, there is no doubt they can be complex projects. When I was ambassador, Canada was moving forward with the Mackenzie Valley pipeline, a project first proposed in the 1970s, resurrected in 2004 and granted a National Energy Board certificate in 2011. As far as Keystone XL is concerned, a project that is without doubt in the U.S. national interest and that I believe will be permitted, the state of Nebraska has equal or greater responsibility for the delay than does the federal government. Local government affecting the progress of a pipeline project should not be a foreign concept in Canada (see: British Columbia/Northern Gateway). I am willing to predict that Keystone XL will be permitted by an Obama administration and will be in operation long before Gateway – although I do agree that both have merit.
I won’t go through each item that has been raised in detail (the Detroit bridge issue has been around for years but is being solved under our two current governments) because, as I suggested earlier, the facts do not support the proposition that Canada is being ignored by this White House. I absolutely agree that the affinity of a U.S. president for Canada is critical. Bill Clinton made history as the only president to dedicate a U.S. embassy and it was in Ottawa. He later made a historic speech in Quebec on federalism and national unity, demonstrating his respect for a strong and united Canada. He had enormous regard for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, and we made substantial progress together. It is difficult to imagine a better working relationship, yet we still had differences.
All that said, I submit that our current two leaders have accomplished noteworthy and difficult progress, which should be recognized and appreciated. Is every issue resolved and do we see eye to eye on everything? Of course not. We are two sovereign peoples, so that isn’t likely or even desirable. I have often referred to the Canada-U.S. relationship as the Goldilocks conundrum: Some observers view it as too hot, some as too cold. Put in the context of history, I believe we are experiencing one of those rare periods where it is just about right.
Gordon Giffin is a former U.S. ambassador to Canada and a partner with McKenna Long & Aldridge in Washington.