Politics·Analysis

The myth of Canada's 'special relationship' with the U.S.

To give Stephen Harper the benefit of the doubt, Neil Macdonald writes, Barack Obama is not an easy guy to bond with. But even in the loose confines of an election debate it's no use trying to pretend everything is hunky-dory when it's far from it.

Canadian politicians all think they can bond with the person in the White House, good luck

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Mulcair walk off the set following the Munk debate on foreign affairs in Toronto on Monday. Canada's special relationship with the U.S. was one of the topics. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

To give our prime minister the benefit of the doubt, it is often true that one person in a relationship can think things are just super, maybe even ready to move to the next level, while the other person is, you know, sort of distracted.

The other person might be really popular, and known for being pretty cool, and have lots of money, and a  really great job. He might not even give the relationship much thought at all (or even think he's in a relationship). He might actually be tired of all the demands, and the lectures, and the nagging.

Usually, everybody knows this except for the person who thinks everything's fine.

That, anyway, is about the only explanation I can come up with for Stephen Harper's shock announcement during last night's foreign policy debate that "I have a great relationship with Barack Obama."

He went on to point out that the "Americans have never said otherwise." Any gossip to the contrary, he insisted, "is just an invention."

Well. That wasn't the general assumption among those of us who spent time in the Washington press corps, but reporters do sometimes delude themselves about what goes on in the rarefied air breathed by the elites we cover.

So I emailed the quote to someone I know down there who does breathe that air, and who has some pretty serious connections with people in the administration.

The ridicule was instant. "Oh yeah, BFFs for sure.They have a serious bromance happening. You've met them, right?"

Well, no, I haven't met Barack Obama, actually. But I do remember him sending out the deputy chief of protocol once to meet Stephen Harper at the front door of the White House.

He didn't come himself, or send the vice-president, or the secretary of state, or the chief of staff, or even the chief of protocol, but the deputy chief of protocol. Snub.

No-brainer

Obama, mind you, is known for his reluctance to bond with his fellow leaders, the way George W. Bush did with Tony Blair, or Ronald Reagan did with Brian Mulroney.

Aloof is the word most often used to describe his approach.

Stephen Harper and Barack Obama at the North American Leaders Summit in Toluca, Mexico in February 2014. Just a few months earlier was when Harper told a New York audience that Obama was just playing politics over the Keystone pipeline. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

But down the Washington feeding chain, in the world of diplomats and lobbyists, it's pretty well understood that some foreign leaders have a special status. Barack Obama, for instance, can't stand Israel's prime minister, and isn't too keen on Canada's, either.

That isn't coincidental. Harper, virtually alone among Western leaders has stood with Netanyahu in opposing one of Obama's biggest accomplishments: the deal struck between the major world powers and Iran to contain that country's nuclear program.

In 2011, at a G8 meeting in Deauville, France, Harper also torpedoed an Obama-led statement meant to reinvigorate the withered peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Why? Because the plan used as its starting point a return to the 1967 borders, which has been U.S. policy for decades, but which Netanyahu has denounced.

And then there was Canada's relentless lobbying for the Keystone XL pipeline, which for a time looked like a slam dunk.

When the Obama administration began expressing doubts, Harper travelled to the States to declare that approving it was a "no-brainer." He followed that up two years later by saying Obama was just playing politics by holding up approval of the line and that he, Harper, "would not take no for an answer."

Tom Mulcair and Stephen Harper argue the Conservative government's strategy on the Keystone XL pipeline at the Munk debate on foreign affairs. 0:46

None of us following the issue in Washington could quite figure out what that meant.

Anyway, as the NDP's Tom Mulcair said to Harper last night: "Guess what? The answer is no, and you can't do anything about it."

What soft power?

Harper's stated goal of persuading Obama's successor if he can't persuade Obama might not work out too well, either, particularly if Hillary Clinton wins next year's presidential election. Just a few days ago, she ruled out Keystone XL.

Which makes another of Harper's statements last night all the more puzzling."We have created overwhelming support for this project in the United States," he said, smiling. "Its adoption is inevitable."

Harper was right about one thing, though, when he said that "Canada has a good relationship with the United States," and that "we work productively overall."

Of course we do. Our leaders have clashed before. Justin Trudeau might want voters to believe that only a Liberal prime minister can fix the soured relationship of a Harper and Obama, but he chooses to forget the terms Richard Nixon used to describe his father.

In the end, personal snits cannot be allowed to get in the way of more than half a trillion dollars worth of annual business.

Ottawa and Washington have done serious work keeping the border crossings unclogged, and Canada keeps loyally flying missions over Iraq and Syria, even as the effort on the ground becomes a worse debacle every week.

And as Harper pointed out, imagine what the White House will think about a Liberal or NDP prime minister cancelling Canada's participation in combat missions.

As for Trudeau's much-repeated suggestion that "we are a country that used to have a lot more influence, and when Canada said something, we were listened to on the world stage," well, that might be what we like to think.

But any journalist or diplomat with a professional memory going back more than a decade will probably admit our dreams of soft power were more often than not just dreams.

Stephen Harper has re-cast our foreign policy, certainly. We've picked sides, and we make more noise, and we do more muscle flexing.

Whether it really makes much of a difference, beyond annoying the American president, is another matter.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.

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