Canada's Hub for International Affairs

Stephen Blank Stephen Blank was a Fulbright Professor at the University of Ottawa in 2012-2013. He now serves as Senior Fellow and Special Advisor to the Collaboratory on Energy, Research and Policy, University of Ottawa.

U.S. election: Notes on the circus to the South

| August 28, 2015

Perhaps in the midst of Canada’s decorous electioning, we might pass a few summer moments pondering the circus south of the border.  The spectacle here obscures some fundamental changes that have reshaped the U.S. election system but it also illuminates some major uncertainties. More …

Beyond Trade: Reframing the North American conversation

| June 19, 2015
Commercial trucks line up on the Ambassador bridge crossing over to Detroit, Michigan from Windsor, Ontario September 12, 2013. A federal judge ruled on December 3, 2013 that Detroit is bankrupt under federal law, prompting hope that the Motor City can emerge with a fresh chance for success. And a $4 billion bridge project would provide just the type of jobs and opportunities the city needs. Picture taken September 12. To match Feature USA-DETROIT/BRIDGE     REUTERS/Rebecca Cook  (CANADA - Tags: BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT CONSTRUCTION) - RTX16DI7

Some Canadians are talking again about Canada-U.S. (and even North American) issues beyond tub-thumping about Keystone XL.  Colin Robertson and Jeremy Kinsman, both distinguished thought leaders, have recently circulated interesting and important essays. But neither confronts the largest issues our nations face.

Both commentaries (found here and here) focus on trade and border issues, and underline the post-9/11 thickening of the border and changed U.S. attitudes toward the relationship.

Of course.

But two matters need to be clarified, and further considered. First, we should look at the border in a broader perspective, instead of reinforcing the idea that it has only thickened since 9/11. Second, we have to understand that, as important as border issues are, still bigger problems are roaring down our road. To even begin to confront these new threats, we have to abandon the NAFTA/free-trade model that structures most conversations on North America – like Robertson’s and Kinsman’s – and think in more continental terms. More …

Keystone: Political drama far from over

| January 16, 2015

It’s Keystone time. Republicans now control both Houses of Congress. The House has passed legislation to start up the pipeline process. Republican leaders in the Senate have put Keystone at the top of their legislative agenda. More, 80 percent of Republican voters support the KeystoneXL project.

This seems to be, finally, the end of a long, long process that began back in April 2008 when TransCanada announced the Keystone XL pipeline expansion project. In the six years and three months since the announcement, a monster array of federal and state government agencies, industry associations and citizen groups have legislated, negotiated, litigated and demonstrated in favour of the pipeline and against it.  Meanwhile the price of oil, about $140 a barrel in 2008, fell to around $55 in 2009, rose to $120 in 2011 and has fallen again to around $40 today.

The problem is that this is not playing out in Ottawa, and Congress is not the House of Commons. Legislation is infinitely more complicated on the south side of the border. Here are five parts of the political process that could change the game. More …

Keystone XL: Cornerstone or Tombstone?

and | November 17, 2014

The Republicans have won control of the U.S. Senate! What’s the magic word in Ottawa? Keystone!

The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation on Friday approving the pipeline project. The lame-duck Senate, still Democratic, may finally vote on Keystone, but the outcome remains uncertain. When the new Republican Senate convenes in January, the outcome will be clear and the new Senate will approve Keystone legislation.

But will President Obama then veto the bill?

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was optimistic earlier this month, saying that passing a Keystone approval bill would be the second item on the Republican agenda, after a budget. “I actually think the President will sign the bill on the Keystone pipeline because I think the pressure — he’s going to be boxed in on that, and I think it’s going to happen,” Priebus said.

Well, maybe. It’s not at all clear what President Obama will do if he receives a bill from the Senate (and there may not be enough pro-Keystone votes to override his veto).

But before leaping to Keystone conclusions, it’s essential to examine the rapid transformations underway in North America’s energy picture. How important Keystone will — or won’t — be to North America’s energy future depends on the outcome of fundamental changes afoot in North American energy markets and politics. More …

Is North American policy “foreign” policy?

| November 4, 2014

The U.S. Presidency is not up for grabs on Tuesday, but Republicans are running hard against President Obama in this week’s midterm election. And like Obamacare and immigration, criticism of Obama’s conduct of American foreign policy is viewed as a major source of Republican votes.

The critique of Obama’s foreign policy argument will be echoed in Toronto on Wednesday in the latest edition of the high-profile Munk Debates series. Four well known U.S. specialists on foreign relations – Robert Kagan, Bret Stephens, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Fareed Zakaria – will square off on the topic, “Be it resolved Obama’s foreign policy is emboldening our enemies and making the world a more dangerous place.”

In the midst of a discussion that will focus mainly on the Middle East, China, Ukraine and Russia, it is worth spending a moment thinking about how Obama’s foreign policy affects its North American partners.

What is interesting and somewhat odd is that relations with Canada and Mexico are often considered ‘foreign’ relations. But should they? More …

North American Infrastructure: A less than optimistic outlook

| October 28, 2014

This piece is part of a series in the lead up to the North American Competitiveness and Innovation Conference — NACIC 2014 — held this week, Oct. 30-31 in Toronto. Earlier this month, Duncan Wood explored the opening of Mexico’s energy sector, Raul Pacheco-Vega called for regional leadership on environmental policy and Brian Bow wrote on infrastructure security since 9/11.

In the 1980 and ’90s, flows of goods across North America’s internal borders grew dramatically.

The largest share was intermediate goods – parts and components rather than finished products –and much of the movement of goods was within companies (“We don’t sell stuff to each other. We make it together”). Large segments of North America’s economies could best be visualized in the early 21st century as deeply integrated continental systems structured by complex cross-border supply chains linking production, distribution and marketing resources across the NAFTA nations.

These increasingly elaborated supply chains depended on efficient transportation systems. More …

The End of the Road

| July 21, 2014

Even those who relish watching Washington’s antics may think struggles over funding highways are stranger than usual. But the game being played out today reveals deeper factors that now shape U.S. politics. (And this affects Canada, stalling efforts we should be making to enhance our competitiveness in the global economy.)

Americans are well aware that U.S. infrastructure is in grim shape. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ latest report card on the condition and performance of U.S. infrastructure gives them an overall grade of D+ (the plus because the U.S. seems able to deal better with solid waste). More puzzling is the political storm over funding infrastructure maintenance and improvement.

The problem of deteriorating, underinvested infrastructure blew up into a crisis in the United States early in the 21st century. During the 1990s, rapid economic growth, urban expansion, the emergence of extended supply chains, a multitude of new environmental regulations and long-term underfunding of maintenance all stressed the capacity of the nation’s infrastructure. Over the next years, a series of reports focusing particularly on transportation infrastructure called attention to what one observer termed a “perfect storm”. More …