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What ex-PM Joe Clark says Harper did wrong on Keystone XL

Joe Clark says the Harper government has let Canada’s relationships with emerging powers ‘atrophy.’

Jim Young/Reuters

He's from Alberta, a Conservative and a free trader.

So it's no surprise that former prime minister Joe Clark backs the Keystone XL pipeline that would free Canada's heavy oil sands crude from market isolation and deeply discounted prices and deliver them to the U.S. gulf coast where huge refineries and world prices could unlock future expansion of Alberta's massive reserves.

But Mr. Clark, who was Canada's foreign minister in the complex and often difficult seven years spanning the end of the Cold War, the defeat of apartheid, and negotiating the free trade pact between Canada and the United States, has long experience in dealing with Washington. He understands the complex political forces at play inside the Beltway and is less-than-impressed with the strident, public, confrontational and – so far – unsuccessful efforts of Canada's current government to demand President Barack Obama deliver a decision on Keystone XL.

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Rather, it seems to fit with a pattern of conduct of foreign affairs by the current Canadian government, which in Mr. Clark's understated assessment is that they "regard foreign policy as something you speak loudly about, rather than act quietly." He made his remarks to the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

Certainly the government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been anything but subtle and nuanced in its lobbying on behalf of TransCanada Corp's $5.4-billion pipeline across America's heartland. Mr. Harper has publicly said Mr. Obama should have no difficulty agreeing to what Canada wants because the decision is a "no brainer" and warning Canada won't take "no for an answer." More recently, Foreign Minister John Baird said Canada would prefer a 'No' to waiting while the U.S. decision-making process unfolds. "The time for a decision on Keystone is now, even if it's not the right one," Mr. Baird publicly told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Close friends and allies rarely resort to megaphone diplomacy to get things done even if it plays well to partisans back home.

Mr. Clark recalled delivering an unwelcome 'No' to Washington on an issue of great importance to the then-president Ronald Reagan. During the mid-1980s, in the dark days of the Cold War, Mr. Reagan launched Star Wars, the controversial space-based missile defence system that – while never deployed – was part of the pressure that eventually forced Moscow to crack. The Americans wanted Canada – an equal partner in NORAD – to join Star Wars. Then-prime minister Brian Mulroney decided to reject the offer. Mr. Clark delivered the news to his U.S. counterpart. The prime minister called the president; all before the public announcement.

Relations between the Mulroney and Reagan governments – as with most periods in Canada-U.S. history – weren't always cozy. Washington was deeply irked by Canada's championing of Nelson Mandela and Ottawa's leadership on slapping apartheid South Africa with harsh sanctions. On other issues; the two governments found common cause and worked together.

Mr. Clark said even as his government was snubbing the Reagan administration on Star Wars, it managed to get Washington to agree to open talks that eventually led to the Free Trade Agreement.

"Assuming the relationship is right, you can have a disagreement on one major issue and still find ways to move ahead," he said.

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On Keystone XL, Mr. Clark suggested the Harper government willfully dug itself into a hole. Even "before the pipeline question arose, the government of Canada deliberately went out of its way to be seen to be an adversary of environmentalists," he said. "It became even clearer when the current minister of resources began a quite systematic attack on environmental groups." All of which resulted in "the impression of an anti-environmentalist government."

That matters, Mr. Clark said because it created a powerful impression, "not least in the United States and not least among people whose judgment has to be taken into account by the president."

Mr. Clark said he hoped Mr. Obama will eventually approve Keystone XL. But that approval has been made more, not less, difficult for the president. "The steepness of the hill that Canada has to climb was created in party by the attitude of the government of Canada on the environment."

Paul Koring reports from Washington.

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