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Argument that Obama ‘lost Canada’ puts envoy on defensive Add to ...

Blame Obama. Two heavyweights of Canada’s foreign-policy elite have created a stink doing just that. It might mark a milestone in changing Canadian attitudes to the United States. And it’s now drawn Barack Obama’s envoy to Canada into the fray.

The fuss roiling the world of cross-border wonks and officials is over How Obama Lost Canada, an article in the online edition of the weighty American journal Foreign Affairs by former Canadian ambassador to the U.S. Derek Burney and respected Carleton University professor Fen Hampson.

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It argues that the President has jilted Canada by mishandling decisions on the Keystone pipeline, Buy American, a long-delayed Detroit bridge, and even snubbing Ottawa’s UN Security Council campaigns. Notably, the authors warn that Canada can turn elsewhere for trade, like Asia – and the United States might not always have such an “obliging partner” to the north. Now, Mr. Obama’s envoy, U.S. ambassador to Canada David Jacobson, has stepped in to answer the accusations that Mr. Obama has botched the job.

“I was surprised by the suggestion from Derek Burney and Fen Hampson that the relationship is failing, given the incredible progress we’ve made in the last year, and in the past two weeks in particular,” Mr. Jacobson said in an e-mail. Canada and the U.S. just signed an agreement for a new Detroit bridge, he said, and also confirmed the timetable for border-accord goals. “The President and the Prime Minister met personally to announce Canada’s invitation into the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” he said. “The relationship between the United States and Canada has never been stronger.”

It’s a debate that has cross-border officials and wonks talking.

Maryscott (Scotty) Greenwood, chief of staff to former U.S. ambassador to Canada Gordon Giffin and now adviser to the Canadian-American Business Council, said the case by Mr. Burney and Mr. Hampson doesn’t add up to a jilting. “They’re looking for monsters under the bed,” she said.

A major example was the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline extension to bring Alberta bitumen to Texas, a decision that Mr. Burney and Mr. Hampson argue was of obvious benefit to both countries. (On this point, Mr. Burney has taken flak because he’s a director of the pipeline developer TransCanada Corp., and the journal Foreign Affairs initially omitted that info.)

But Ms. Greenwood argues that Mr. Obama’s keystone decision was a temporary delay caused by a domestic debate in the United States, fuelled by pipeline spills, environmental lobby politics and a controversial route. “The political debate has very little to do with Canada.” The border accord and regulatory co-operation, she said, are examples of progress.

Mr. Burney and Mr. Hampson note that the United States didn’t campaign for Canada to win a seat on the UN Security Council. But is it fair to blame the U.S. when Mr. Harper’s government botched a stop-start campaign that saw them badly beaten by Portugal?

Ms. Greenwood’s a Democrat, but Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney has already accused Mr. Obama of botching the Keystone decision. George W. Bush’s former Ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins, said the Obama administration’s handling of issues like Buy American and Keystone have been less favou rable to Canada. “I don’t know if neglect is the right word, but certainly not treated as well,” he said.

The article has certainly struck a chord. Larry Herman, a prominent Canadian trade lawer with Cassels Brock in Toronto, e-mailed Mr. Burney to say he agreed. He said the most telling sign of U.S. inattention is the Detroit bridge Mr. Jacobson cited as an example of co-operation – Mr. Obama didn’t push for it, so Ottawa had to finance it. Perhaps, he said, not all of the article’s examples are perfect, “but they’ve said what had to be said.”

But Canada’s felt jilted before, in disputes over softwood lumber, and the border buildup that started under Mr. Bush. U.S. inattention has been a perennial Canadian complaint. Perhaps what’s really different is the suggestion Canada will have other places to do business, like in Asia.

Mr. Burney and Mr. Hampson are being provocateurs, ringing bells in the U.S. foreign-policy world and among Canada’s chattering class, that the U.S. isn’t everything to us any more. Ten years ago, a Canadian who wrote a diagnosis of U.S.-Canada problems would have insisted that it was crucial for Ottawa to fix them because Canada was so dependent on the U.S. Now, they’re putting the onus on Mr. Obama, saying he’s mishandling a relationship that’s important to him.

Just as Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded to the Keystone delay by placing a higher priority on selling oil to Asia, Mr. Burney and Mr. Hampson are warning that Canada is gradually becoming less reliant on U.S. trade, and less dependent on the U.S. But don’t let that be a comfort: the pair’s next work, published Tuesday, argued that Canada is ill-equipped to deal with the emerging markets, notably in Asia, that represent its trade future.

Follow on Twitter: @camrclark

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