As Ottawa prepares to receive George W. Bush in the next few months, expect lots of lectures about how vital Canada-U.S. trade is and how devastated we’d be if the president were to suddenly shut down the border.
This is designed to convince us of the need to walk on eggshells when he gets here, keep protesters out of sight and perhaps whisk outspoken Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish to an undisclosed location outside the capital.
It will be easy to lose sight of an obvious truth — the U.S. trades with us not because Bush has fond feelings for our political leaders or thinks Canadians are nice people who really like him. It trades with us because it’s in the U.S. interest to do so.
I know this doesn’t fit with the view that world events turn on the rapport between political leaders. We’re told, for instance, that it was Brian Mulroney’s Irish charm that convinced Ronald Reagan to support the Canada-U.S. free-trade deal, the forerunner of NAFTA.
And we’re now told that it’s essential Prime Minister Paul Martin be accommodating so Bush will feel fondly towards Canadians whenever he’s contemplating slamming the border shut.
In fact, Bush has no intention of slamming the border shut. That would cut off his Number 1 source of energy.
Commentators here tend to stress how much bigger and more powerful the U.S. is, and how desperately we want access to the American market. True, but the U.S. desperately wants access to our energy.
Few things are more important to U.S. policymakers — particularly in the Bush administration — than access to energy. Their hopes of remaining the dominant superpower, economically and militarily, hinge on access to this most essential commodity. But there’s a problem.
Notwithstanding images of swaggering Texas oilmen and Jed Clampett’s backyard gusher, the U.S. is short on oil.
It has three per cent of the world’s oil. But, with their voracious energy appetites, Americans consume 25 per cent of the world’s oil. This leaves them heavily dependent on foreign sources. Each year they became more dependent. They now import more than half of all their oil.
This explains why one of the first things Dick Cheney did after assuming the vice-presidency was set up a top-level task force on America’s energy security, chaired by himself.
It also explains why, long before 9/11 and the launching of the “war on terror,” Cheney and other top figures in the Bush administration were focused on Iraq — the largest remaining untapped oil bonanza on Earth.
But their attention also focused northward. Far from the mayhem of the Middle East lie the vast oil and gas reserves of Canada. Such a co-operative little country. So eager to please. Not an insurgent in sight.
Washington has long coveted our ample energy resources, and it scored a huge victory in the early ’90s when it got Ottawa to agree to a provision in NAFTA that prevents us from cutting back our energy exports to the U.S., unless we cut our own consumption by the same amount. So, even if there were a severe oil shortage in parts of Canada, we wouldn’t be allowed to cut oil exports to the U.S. and redirect them to shivering Canadians.
This was a stunning capitulation on Canada’s part. Not that we don’t want to sell our energy south of the border. But why would we be willing to give up our ultimate control over such a precious resource, especially one that may well become scarce in the coming decades?
It’s easy to see why NAFTA was regarded as a breakthrough in the U.S., making Canada its largest and most secure supplier of energy.
So it wasn’t really Mulroney’s Irish charm that won the day. American planners had long dreamed of getting secure access to our energy. Even Reagan could grasp that.
Now the U.S. is back for more. This time it’s pushing for a full continental energy pact, under which, among other things, our electricity grids and environmental review processes could be integrated.
And it looks like Canada is once again likely to oblige.
Canada is currently participating in a task force, along with the U.S. and Mexico, to plan the expansion of NAFTA, including a continental energy pact. The task force includes some of Canada’s most prominent advocates for deeper Canada-U.S. integration, such as former deputy prime Minister John Manley and business lobbyist Tom d’Aquino.
So it looks like the Americans are about to secure even greater access to our energy. And they’ll have done it without sending in a single troop. The only loose cannon they’ll have to face is Parrish.