Keystone Uber Alles?

Steve Saideman on why neither Canadian domestic policy nor Canadian-U.S. relations begin and end with the Keystone pipeline.

By: /
27 February, 2013
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

“If the Obama administration blocks the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, relations between Canada and the United States will enter a deep freeze the likes of which have never been seen.” This statement by John Ibbitson in the Globe and Mail is so astonishing in its overreach, in its threat exaggeration, that I cannot help but to comment, even though my expertise lies elsewhere.

To put it most simply: Is Canada a one-issue country? Does the entire Canadian public share a single point of view on this issue? Is this the be-all of Canadian foreign policy? Is Canada a “banana republic” in the sense that it has only one commodity to export upon which everything else depends?

I am pretty sure the answer to all of these is questions is a very clear “no”.

After all, have there not been some significant battles between provinces over pipelines? B.C. can take issue with how oil might flow through its territory, so why not a sovereign country?  Not every Canadian is huge fan of increasing the amount of oil extracted from the Alberta tar sands, as the consequences for the local and global environment are significant. 

Ibbitson goes on to suggest that the rest of Canada’s relations with the U.S. will suffer if President Obama “betrays” Canada on this issue. This would make a heap of sense if the only thing of benefit to Canada from its bilateral relationship with the U.S. is an oil market. But can Canada really present a “cold shoulder” to the Americans when it has so many other interests at stake? Last time I checked, an overwhelming majority of Canadian exports went to the U.S. Many Canadian jobs depend greatly on a comprehensive bilateral relationship, not just on the continued development of the oil patch. And Canada’s security depends on a bilateral institution: NORAD.

So, the threat that Canada would punish the U.S. for its “betrayal” on Keystone is incredible.  That is, it is not simply hard to believe – it’s just not credible. Yes, this issue is an important one, particularly for Canadian domestic politics. Alberta is Harper’s political base, so we understand why he is so concerned. But Obama also has domestic politics to keep in mind – much of his base has concerns about the environmental consequences of the project. This is what makes the last sentence of Ibbitson’s piece simply amazing: “Of course none of this would happen, if Mr. Obama simply said yes.” Ah yes, the American president can simply wave a magic wand and make constraints and conflicting interests disappear. The reality is that there is nothing simple about this issue or the pressures it places on Obama.

There is no doubt that the Obama administration understands that this issue is important to Harper and some Canadians (not all Canadians fixate on Keystone like those writing op-ed pieces). I am sure he would like to help out the Harper government, which has proven to be a good partner, both in the skies over Libya and on the ground in Afghanistan. But Obama has domestic concerns as well. A second-term president may not have to worry about re-election, but his political capital is finite and declining. He must pick and choose his battles. Perhaps cancelling Keystone would require more political capital, perhaps not. It will be interesting to see what Obama will and will not fight for in his second term. 

Recognizing the constraints on other participants is the first step one needs to take in order to figure out how to get one’s preferred outcome in any negotiation. Threatening to nuke U.S.-Canada relations may not be the best approach to finessing the obstacles Obama faces.  Threatening massive retaliation might make Keystone’s supporters feel better, but it also marginalizes them. People who make foolish threats lose credibility and, with it, influence.  There are probably better arguments to make to gain support for this pipeline. Threatening suicide is not one of them.

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