The U.S.-Canada chasm

Canadian governments that choose not to live in the lockstep world of U.S. foreign policy are rightly applauded on this side of the border.

Canadian governments that choose not to live in the lockstep world of U.S. foreign policy are rightly applauded on this side of the border.

But when you drift so far apart that U.S. officials view your foreign policy with a raised eyebrow and a sense of bemusement, and your key bilateral infrastructure needs are trapped in the benign neglect of American domestic politics, perhaps it is time for a rethink.

Stephen Harper vowed to carve out an independent foreign policy with his majority and he has.

Barack Obama as U.S. president made the journey to Ottawa right after his first election victory, then hasn’t appeared to give a second glance or thought to the north since.

So, today, we have an administration in Washington that looks at Harper’s positions on the Middle East and Iran and, at least, rates them in diplomatic speak as “unhelpful.”

Or, as one bilateral expert put it in non-diplomatic speak: “I’m sure the National Security Council sees Canada going rogue and wonders what they’re smoking up there.”

Then there’s the second track, which can be called the “nuts and bolts” work between the two.

That includes, of course, the Keystone XL pipeline, where Harper’s still-unexplained edict that he would not take ‘No’ for an answer turned into Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s loud, “ ‘No’ is fine, just give us an answer” edict to his U.S. counterpart, John Kerry.

Then there is the curious case of the new Detroit-Windsor bridge that Ottawa has essentially offered to build for Michigan. But while the Harper government offers a much-needed continental gift, the Obama administration will not kick in $250 million for a needed customs plaza at the same time the U.S. Senate wants to spend tens of billions reinforcing the border with Mexico.

This comes only months after a dispute over improvements to the Peace Bridge at Fort Erie required high level diplomatic intervention to avert a bilateral brawl.

There is no linkage between foreign policy writ large and moribund pipelines and bridges, but neither is good news for Ottawa.

On Israel, while Kerry is trying to broker a lasting peace, Washington watches Harper’s unflinching allegiance to Israel and, although Harper says he has raised concerns with Israeli policy privately with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a year ago, Obama raised his concerns publicly, calling on Israelis to “look at the world through (Palestinian) eyes,’’ in a Jerusalem speech.

Harper will not publicly criticize Israel, but it is also less than three years since Harper was credited by Israel for blocking any reference to its pre-1967 borders as a starting point for an Obama-led peace initiative.

On Iran, Washington is at the forefront of a deal that saw Iran suspend its most sensitive nuclear development work in return for an easing of sanctions, but Harper won’t even deal with Iran, chides allies for jumping on the Iranian “bandwagon” and tells the world Tehran must show deeds, not words.

The understandable Canadian impatience on Keystone has been well-chronicled and the delay on the Michigan bridge may be a matter of piqued autoworkers lobbying Washington to delay punishing right-to-work Republican Governor Rick Snyder, but Canadian interests are hurt both times.

One diplomat reminds that we are hardly the only country sideswiped by a dysfunctional U.S. political system. True enough — or maybe Obama has a blind spot when it comes to the northern border.

A more optimistic view includes an end to the budget fights that have paralyzed the U.S. system, no immediate threat of gridlock, and good relations between Baird and Kerry, who understands his Canadian counterpart was playing to his own domestic audience on Keystone.

The glass half full view says money has started flowing for northern border patrols, with more money coming available for the 49th parallel.

Maybe, but a strong relationship with Washington has ripple effects for this country diplomatically. If we have Washington’s ear, we become stronger regional players because there is a belief we can relay concerns or complaints straight to the bigger player to the south. There is no sign that Harper has that type of relationship with Obama — or that either man covets such a relationship.

It is one thing to tell Israel we are with them through fire and water, but maybe our relationship with the U.S. needs a little more blood and sweat.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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