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Has Obama Really "Lost Canada"

Christopher Sands

It took me a few minutes to wipe the coffee off my computer screen this morning after I’d read an article entitled, How Obama Lost Canada in the online edition of Foreign Affairs, the Council on Foreign Relations journal. Canada? Lost? Really?

The authors are two men I respect deeply: former Canadian Ambassador to the United States Derek Burney and the director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, Fen Osler Hampson. Both of them have been following the U.S.-Canadian relationship — and in Burney’s case, helping to shape it — far longer than I have

Still, their argument caught me by surprise. The article’s title is a reference to the U.S. debates over “Who lost China” in the 1950s when some American politicians sought to blame others for the Communist take-over in China that turned a second World War U.S. ally into a Cold War enemy. Granted that this is just a turn of phrase, but there has been no change of leadership or policy in Canada — I checked — that would compare to a Communist revolution.

Reading Burney and Hampson, the argument they make is more subtle than the title suggests. They cite a list of issues on which the Harper government has come to the aid of the United States—from the troop commitment to Afghanistan, to paying the State of Michigan’s share of the construction costs of a new bridge between Detroit and Windsor. Then, the authors offer a much longer list of disappointments when the Obama administration has not given the Harper government what Canada wanted.

These failings include a supposed unwillingness to lobby other participants to waive entry requirements for Canada to join the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations, the ongoing differences over boundary lines in the arctic, the silence of the Obama administration when Canada unsuccessfully sought one of the rotating seats on the United Nations Security Council, and the failure to produce a joint plan to address climate change.

However, the central grievance for the authors is the failure of President Obama to grant a presidential permit for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline is being built by Trans Canada Corporation, where Ambassador Burney has been a member of the 
board of directors since 2005. This criticism is likely to sting the Obama administration the most: the Keystone pipeline has become a partisan issue in the United States election, with Mitt Romney pledging to approve the Keystone pipeline on Day One of his administration; Obama has insisted that he may approve the pipeline in 2013 as well.

It is undeniable that Canada has not got everything it has asked for from the Obama administration. Nor have some key domestic interests, and the president has been under pressure from key constituencies and voters in general for his apparent failure to deliver on promises in this election year, so Canada is hardly alone.

Yet as unfashionable as it may be, it is important to grant Obama credit for having tried to accommodate Canada. No foreign leader has received as much face time with Obama as Harper, who attends many of the same international summits and meets with the president once or twice a year bilaterally.

Obama has praised Canadian troops and honored Canada’s sacrifices in Afghanistan and Libya, cheered Canada’s Winter Olympics victories (even though rooting for Team USA, of course), worked to address Canadian complaints about the “Buy American” provisions of the stimulus legislation, and agreed to tackle border, energy and regulatory cooperation through a set of bilateral negotiations.

At the same time, the Obama administration has maintained other foreign relationships and has often conceded to domestic political interests. The United States has made no secret of officials’ frustration with Canadian alienation from Mexico, which has resulted time and attention spread thin by parallel talks on border, energy, and regulatory cooperation. And while the Harper government has initiated bilateral trade talks with Thailand, China, and other Asian countries, the Obama administration has a clear preference for the multilateral Trans Pacific Partnership.

In 2009 at the beginning of the Obama administration, Burney and Hampson co-chaired a task force on the U.S.-Canadian relationship that produced a report “From Correct to Inspired: A Blueprint for Canada-US Engagement“ that was far more optimistic about the potential future of the bilateral relationship than the authors currently seem to be. After eight years of tough relations with the George W. Bush administration, Burney and Hampson hoped that the Obama administration would create an opening for progress on common concerns and priorities. At the time, many saw the report as influential in shaping the Harper government’s approach to Washington.

The report called for the re-bilateralization of many issues that Canada and the United States had historically approached together, and for which the United States had often been willing to grant Canada an exemption from policies applied to other countries. For some Canadians, such special treatment was the necessary evidence of a “special relationship” between the two countries. Specifically, the Burney-Hampson report addressed the “touchy issue” of de-trilateralizing many issues that the United States viewed as North American and wanted to address with both Canada and Mexico.

Even if the 2009 Burney-Hampson blueprint for better U.S.-Canadian relations has not achieved everything the authors hoped for, their 2012 view that the Obama administration has alienated Canada through its neglect of Canadian priorities seems overly defeatist. Relations between Canada and the United States are imperfect but not that bad, and the Obama administration’s engagement of other friends around the world is natural. The fact that President Obama has occasionally let domestic considerations take precedence over diplomacy, even in the case of a friendly ally like Canada, is regrettable perhaps but also to be expected.

Both Burney and Hampson must know all this, yet did not let it temper their harsh judgment of the Obama administration in their Foreign Affairs article. Many U.S. policymakers will be hurt by their negative characterization of the U.S.-Canadian relationship. If Obama is re-elected in November, he may wonder if Canada can ever be satisfied, and whether it is worth devoting so much attention to the Harper government and its priorities. And a President Romney could end up asking the same question.

It may be then that a Canadian foreign policy journal will publish an article with the rhetorical title, “Who Lost the United States?”

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