How Obama Lost Canada

Botching Relations With the United States’ Biggest Trade Partner

The U.S. president walks past an honor guard after arriving in Ottawa in 2009. (Jim Young / Courtesy Reuters)

Permitting the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline should have been an easy diplomatic and economic decision for U.S. President Barack Obama. The completed project would have shipped more than 700,000 barrels a day of Albertan oil to refineries in the Gulf Coast, generated tens of thousands of jobs for U.S. workers, and met the needs of refineries in Texas that are desperately seeking oil from Canada, a more reliable supplier than Venezuela or countries in the Middle East. The project posed little risk to the landscape it traversed. But instead of acting on economic logic, the Obama administration caved to environmental activists in November 2011, postponing until 2013 the decision on whether to allow the pipeline.

Obama’s choice marked a triumph of campaign posturing over pragmatism and diplomacy, and it brought U.S.-Canadian relations to their lowest point in decades. It was hardly the first time that the administration has fumbled issues with Ottawa. Although relations have been civil, they have rarely been productive. Whether on trade, the environment, or Canada’s shared contribution in places such as Afghanistan, time and again the United States has jilted its northern neighbor. If the pattern of neglect continues, Ottawa will get less interested in cooperating with Washington. Already, Canada has reacted by turning elsewhere -- namely, toward Asia -- for more reliable economic partners.

Economically, Canada and the United States are joined at the hip. Each country is the other’s number-one trading partner -- in 2011, the two-way trade in goods and services totaled $681 billion, more than U.S. trade with Mexico or China -- and trade with Canada supports more than eight million U.S. jobs. Yet the Obama administration has recently jeopardized this important relationship. It failed to combat the Buy American provision in Congress’ stimulus bill, which inefficiently excluded Canadian participation in infrastructure spending.

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