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john ibbitson

Derek Burney and Fen Hampson are right. David Jacobson is also right. But the real news is that the question doesn't matter so much any more.

Two eminent Canadians are engaged in a war of words with the American ambassador over relations between the Harper government and the Obama administration.

Mr. Burney, who was Canadian ambassador to the United States, and Prof. Hampson, a distinguished political scientist, caused a storm within the cloistered world of Canada-U.S. watchers with their article in Foreign Affairs describing relations between the Democratic administration and the Conservative government as at "the lowest point in decades."

Mr. Jacobson rebutted in a newsletter from the embassy that – au contraire – the relationship "has never been stronger."

On Monday, in a tat-for-tit-for-tat, Mr. Burney and Prof. Hampson rejoined at that Mr. Jacobson's rebuttal "discredits ... his skill as a diplomat."

Where lies the truth?

Mr. Burney and Prof. Hampson reflect genuine anger within the Harper government at actions taken by the Obama administration in the last year of its mandate.

Refusing to approve the Keystone XL pipeline for environmental/electoral reasons was bad enough. Playing hardball in negotiating Canada's entry into the Trans Pacific Partnership was worse.

Relations are tense right now. That's all there is to it.

But Mr. Jacobson's larger point is also valid: The groundwork has been laid for progress. Keystone could be approved next year. Canada is finally in the TPP negotiations; now it is up to the Harper government to make those negotiations work for Canada.

The Detroit/Windsor bridge may (stress on "may") finally be going ahead. Progress on the Beyond the Border agreement, which aims both to improve continental security and to ease border congestion, is slow but measurable.

A year or two from now we could be writing that the relationship "has never been stronger." Provided, of course, four or five "ifs" work out.

What matters more, however, is the shift in priorities. Stephen Harper came to power in 2006 determined to revive and grow the Canada-U.S. relationship. Six years later, that relationship matters less.

Of course, America will always be Canada's largest trading partner and a close ally in international affairs.

And those who blithely urge Canada to turn its back on the fickle Americans need to explain to us how the Europeans or the Chinese can be trusted to be less fickle.

But the hard truth is that the American economy is deeply troubled and not destined to improve any time soon. The relationship between Congress and the administration is beyond dysfunctional. For the rest of this decade at least, tying Canadian growth to American growth will be a very risky bet.

Canada has no choice but to deepen trade ties with emerging economic giants, especially in Asia. That's easy to say, but very hard to achieve.

It means deeply focused work to open Canadian products and services to foreign markets. It means surrendering protections in agriculture, cultural and financial services and other protected sectors.

And yes, it means risk: forging relationships with countries that are not democracies, that struggle with (and sometimes embrace) corruption, that are far less bound to the rule of law than Western nations.

It means hard bargaining and hard choices. And it means taking plenty of political heat. Those who are most suspicious of the troubled American giant are also most unwilling to sacrifice protections for the sake of increased trade with the rising Asian giants.

But the risks must be taken, or Canada will be dragged into the decaying orbit of Euro-American debt, decline, crisis and paralysis.

The Canadian government should do everything it can to keep Canada-U.S. relations on an even keel (and to promote free trade with Europe as well). But this country's future lies in the Pacific. Trade needs to become much less vertical and much more horizontal.

It's time to stop worrying about what the Americans think of us. It's what the Chinese and Indians and Japanese and South Koreans and Malaysians and Indonesians and Filipinos and Vietnamese and all the others think of us that matters now.

That's where the growth is. That's where we have to go. Even if the Pacific alternative is a much, much harder row to hoe.

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