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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)
Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

More than chemistry behind Canada-U.S. doldrums Add to ...

David Jacobson left Ottawa last July after almost four years as U.S. ambassador to Canada. Six months later, no one has taken his place.

Bruce Heyman, a Goldman Sachs partner from Chicago, was announced as Mr. Jacobson’s successor some time ago. Mr. Heyman’s confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate’s foreign-relations committee took place on Dec. 10. Since then, the full Senate has not found time to approve his nomination.

The ways of the U.S. Senate are always passing strange, so who knows why Mr. Heyman remains in limbo. But it does not appear that President Barack Obama’s administration has used any muscle in that chamber to get an ambassador to Canada, nor that it has much time for Canada or Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government.

Those who follow Canadian-U.S. relations acknowledge that there’s not much of a personal relationship between Mr. Obama and Mr. Harper. They are two cerebral cats who don’t go much for schmoozing. The Canadian is a conservative and the U.S. President a liberal, which means a centrist by Canadian standards.

There’s nothing like the personal chemistry that existed between prime minister Brian Mulroney and presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, or between prime minister Jean Chrétien and president Bill Clinton.

The lack of chemistry doesn’t fully explain the lethargy and lack of action. The complicated American political system is at work. So are Harper government positions that put Canada offside from U.S. initiatives.

Mr. Obama’s administration is negotiating with Iran and trying to spur talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. On both, Ottawa reflects Israel’s suspicions and obduracy, rather than Washington’s positions.

The Harper government has three overriding bilateral commercial objectives with the United States: approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, a new Windsor-Detroit bridge and facilitated cross-border trade. Each file has suffered delay or complete lack of action.

The Harper government has expended enormous amounts of political capital on promoting Keystone XL, a pipeline project Mr. Harper once called a “no-brainer” (not a “slam dunk,” as I wrote earlier this week). For something supposedly so simple that anyone with a brain would approve it, Mr. Obama has been taking his time, and more.

Sensible people long ago gave up predicting when the President will make up his mind. Maybe he already has but won’t say until after November’s midterm elections for the U.S. House and Senate.

After all that political capital expended, all that diplomatic effort spent, all those ministerial speeches given in Washington, all that money poured into lobbying, there is still no answer. Now, after the U.S. State Department’s recent report on Keystone XL, other government departments have 90 days to weigh in, after which a decision will be made. But when?

Then there’s the Windsor-Detroit bridge. A full description of this file would fill the entire newspaper, so let’s just say the new bridge appears to be nearing final approval by all who must okay it – except that it ain’t over until it’s over in U.S. politics, and even then it ain’t over, to paraphrase Yogi Berra.

So absurd is this saga that Canada is all but paying for everything, lending money to the other side to be paid back in tolls and even starting to buy land on the Detroit side. This is land that the Americans will need for their part of the project. Amazingly, Mr. Obama’s government has not yet committed the $250-million needed for a new border inspection station, a failure that has properly incurred the wrath of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.

Mr. Obama’s administration has done almost nothing to push the bridge forward. Even the huge economic stimulus package that showered money across the United States after the 2008 recession did not contain a drop for the bridge, despite Ottawa’s repeated pleas about the importance of a new link at the largest crossing point for Canadian-U.S. commerce.

Speaking of commerce, the barriers facing people and goods crossing the borders between NAFTA countries remain many and irritating. More than anything, they are driven by the omnivorous bureaucratic demands of U.S. security agencies and some domestic lobby groups, such as truckers.

No U.S. ambassador. Little progress on bilateral files. Canadian distance from key U.S. diplomatic initiatives. Relations in the doldrums.

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