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John Ibbitson

John Ibbitson

John Ibbitson

Obama, Harper don’t like each other, and only a new leader can thaw relations Add to ...

John Ibbitson is completing a one-year leave of absence from The Globe and Mail, during which he served as a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation while working on a book. He returns to the Globe in January.

Every decade or so, Canada-U.S. relations reach such a parlous state that nothing good can happen until someone pushes the reset button. We’re at that state.

Within a year or two, a new prime minister and/or a new president will sweep away the irritants that are gumming up the works between the two countries. Until that happens, things will remain seriously gummed. This rhythm of irritation, freeze and renewal is cyclical. We happen to be at the low ebb of the cycle.

The most optimistic word that can be used to describe the relationship between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama is “correct.” The President’s refusal to approve the Keystone XL pipeline is the main reason, though not the only one.

Mr. Harper, according to individuals who discussed the matter on background, is deeply frustrated with a president who, he believes, is incapable of making a difficult decision.

Whether it’s confronting Syrian use of chemical weapons, negotiating trade agreements, defending Israel or, above all, approving Keystone, Mr. Harper has become convinced Mr. Obama is captive to so many special interests that he simply won’t or can’t take a stand.

A cautious approach to world affairs is not a bad thing. In the 19th century, Prime Minister Salisbury said that British foreign policy was “to drift gently downstream, occasionally putting out a boat-hook to avoid a collision.”

And Mr. Obama no doubt has his own thoughts about a Canadian prime minister who described approving Keystone as a “no-brainer” and who won’t “take no for an answer.”

But the fact remains that relations between the two countries are temporarily frozen. This is nothing new.

Periodically, cross-border tensions reach the point where Canada and the U.S. are barely talking to each other, like a couple having a fight. But those tensions are inconvenient for the U.S. and dangerous for Canada. When this happens, Canadian voters hit the reset button by changing prime ministers, and/or American voters change presidents. (The Americans, of course, are always thinking about something different at the time.)

Consider the last reset. In the 1990s, Jean Chretien and Bill Clinton got along famously. But Mr. Clinton couldn’t prevent Congress from imposing duties on Canadian softwood lumber. And when George Bush replaced Bill Clinton, things went south over Canada’s refusal to join in the Iraq War. They went even further south when Paul Martin infuriated the Americans by withdrawing Canadian support for ballistic missile defence.

Stephen Harper came to office determined to reset the relationship. One of the government’s first acts was to negotiate an end to the softwood lumber dispute. The prime minister affirmed and expanded the Martin government’s commitment to an expeditionary force for Afghanistan.

When Mr. Obama, who was far more popular among Canadians than Mr. Harper, became president in 2009, the two embarked on an ambitious plan to co-ordinate continental security, harmonize regulations and make it easier to cross the border. The Beyond the Border accord of 2011 marked the high point of the Obama-Harper relationship.

But already obstacles were piling up. Congress imposed Buy American restrictions on infrastructure contracts. Beyond the Border turned out to exist mostly on paper, because the Americans were too broke to pay their share of the infrastructure costs.

When Canada asked to join the Trans Pacific Partnership talks, the Americans imposed such harsh conditions that Mr. Harper was left fuming. Friends, he told others, don’t do to friends what the Americans did to Canada on the TPP. And then there was Keystone.

A Nebraska court will soon rule on legal issues surrounding the pipeline. If the ruling is favourable, Mr. Obama may finally give the go-ahead. Or, the new Republican Congress may force his hand by approving the pipeline and daring him to veto the bill.

It won’t matter. Nothing that happens now will change Mr. Harper’s mind about a president whom he personally rather likes, but for whom he has lost all respect. Relations between the two capitals for the next year or two will remain no better than lukewarm at best. If Mr. Obama vetoes Congressional approval of Keystone, things could get as bad as they were in the early 1960s, when John Diefenbaker deeply angered John F. Kennedy by refusing to allow American nuclear weapons on Canadian soil.

But a reset is in the offing. It could occur in 2015, when Canadians vote on whether to give Mr. Harper another term as prime minister. Things will certainly change in 2016, when the Americans elect a new president.

In either case, expect a flurry of positive announcements, with the prime minister and the new president vowing to sweep away yesterday’s grievances and bridge the continental divide.

And then there will be a thing. And another thing. And another thing. And people will start saying that it’s time for a reset. ‘Twas ever, and always will be, thus.

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