One of the most fascinating developments of the Keystone XL approval process, from a purely diplomatic standpoint, is just how brazen and brash the Canadian government has behaved.
Aside from the unpleasantness of 1812 and a few women’s ice hockey games,* the US and Canada have shared a close and cordial relationship. But on the subject of KXL, Canada has pulled a full Mean Girl, complete with passive-aggressive jabs and behind-the-back gossip.
Granted $7 billion is not chump change, but how does one company’s pipeline deal become such a sharp thistle between friends?
The answer may lie between the ears of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. On Saturday, Bloomberg news posted a story by a team of reporters in Washington, Ottawa, and Calgary, “How Obama Shocked Harper as Keystone’s Frustrator-in-Chief.”
The article looks closely at the politics of KXL on each side of the border, and the diplomacy across it. But more than anything, it provides a telling look into the mind of Harper, a Conservative politician whose ties to the oil industry are long and deep.
An American observer of Canadian politics might recognize a certain… familiarity.
Sharp-elbowed politics by a majority government that routinely dismisses or ignores criticism, plays fast and loose with election laws, suppresses voter turnout through dirty tricks (lessons learned from its US-based, GOP-tied campaign advisors), turns minor scandals into major ones through cover-up, demonizes its adversaries (notoriously saying opponents of internet spying enable child pornographers), and claims the title of sole possessor and protecter of patriotism, condemning its detractors as un-Canadian.
With a few changed descriptors, Harper and George W. Bush become virtually interchangeable. The Bloomberg report bears out much of this impression.
The article begins by recounting a 2011 phone call from President Obama to Harper, explaining that a change in the proposed route of KXL through Nebraska required a new environmental review, putting the project on hold. This seems reasonable, insofar as the Ogallala Aquifer is in the pipeline’s path, and the socially, economically, and strategically important agricultural industry relies upon it. Best to make sure it is safe before pumping toxic sludge through it, n’est-ce pas?
Not if you’re Stephen Harper.
So here was Obama, in Harper’s view, jeopardizing Canada’s welfare by throwing a sop to his anti-Keystone environmental supporters. [...] It convinced Harper that Obama was treating a long-presumed “special relationship” between Canada and the U.S., enshrined in the 1989 Free Trade Agreement, as a political football. It would set a brittle tone on both sides of the border as the Keystone battle became a contest of contrasting political wills and sensibilities as much as a fight over oil development.
Attributed to Harper government insiders, this assessment does not reflect well on the PM. His only concern in the transaction is Canada’s economic well-being– which, granted, is fitting with the job, but Obama’s concerns are not negligible, and there is strong debate in Canada as to whether KXL is in that country’s best interest. Obama’s wanting to ensure his nation’s breadbasket doesn’t end up poisoned becomes “a political football.” And as described thoroughly in the article, the “brittle tone” manifests itself every time Harper or his ministers speak of KXL in threatening, hectoring terms.
As the Bloomberg report demonstrates, much of the hostility from Harper’s government can be tied to Harper’s monomaniacal fixation on making Canada a global energy superpower, expanding its export market well beyond the United States (effectively proving that KXL’s purported boon to US energy security is nothing but a lie).
Harper’s zealotry for oil development is due, certainly at least in part, to the fact that like W., he comes from an oil-industry family, and his political fortunes were sown in the oil fields of Alberta, known colloquially as the Texas of Canada.
The name fits, as the province’s dominant industries are oil and cattle ranching, and its politics are extremely conservative. The faction of the Conservative Party Harper represents can be likened to US neocons: socially conservative, pro-corporate, opposed to taxes and social spending, and reflexively hostile to anything Liberal. “By the time he was sworn in as prime minister in February 2006,” Bloomberg writes, “Harper saw the oil sands as his nation’s route to riches and stature.”
So it’s no surprise that, like W., Harper shows disregard for regulators and scorn for the idea that public interest should be part of the conversation where corporate profits are concerned. But that me-first attitude and petulant tone are not gaining Harper many fans on either side of the border.
Many long-time players in Canada-U.S. relations, including some of Harper’s own diplomats, also question whether Canada was wise to position itself as an equal partner and choose to irritate rather than accommodate. “We’re not the G-1, the U.S. is,” said Peter Harder, foreign affairs deputy minister during Harper’s first year in office. “We’re the ones who need to be working harder to have a good relationship.”
It would serve Harper well to remember that. With the US set to become the leading oil exporter in the next year or so, and US demand for petroleum declining–not to mention there are more Californians than there are Canadians– it’s clear who is Batman and who is Robin in this dynamic duo.
But it seems unlikely that Harper will soften his approach from snide digs and sniffing disrespect. After all, he has made tar sands development his grand goal for Canadian greatness. “It is an enterprise of epic proportions,” he told the Canada-UK Chamber of Commerce in 2006, “akin to the building of the pyramids or China’s Great Wall. Only bigger.”
He should remember, though, the Great Wall was built in fear, and the pyramids are tombs.
*Seriously, the Canadian and US women’s ice hockey teams do not like each other. At all.