You could argue that being a real US ambassador to Canada is impossible, that America’s Ambassador David Jacobson doesn’t truly represent a foreign power because he doesn’t have an independent host to worry about.
Canada’s business leaders, diplomats, and most accomplished politicians have little influence in Washington, but they do know what’s going on. When Jacobson speaks publicly in Canada, he’s addressing public affairs audiences that already know as much about Washington affairs as audiences in Seattle or Tampa.
When he’s speaking in private, he can spice up the gossip, but needn’t worry about hurting anyone’s feelings or about ever having to pass along unpleasant or alarming messages from Stephen Harper to his President.
Ottawa is a G-8 capital, but it isn’t Jerusalem. Can you picture Barack Obama ever wrestling with a Jacobson aide memoire after the kids have gone to bed?
Nevertheless, Jacobson is mighty powerful up north. His President is more liked, trusted, and respected by Canadians than their own prime minister and parliament. So, in effect, as Obama’s man in Ottawa, he knows that he has the backing of millions of Canadians when he tells Harper what Obama wants to hear.
The ambassador’s key job isn’t to represent widely known American interests, but to coach—to tell Canadians how they can most pleasingly present their interests in Washington. About a month ago, in a major speech, he told Canada’s government and business establishment how to help Obama feel more comfortable about approving the Keystone XL Pipeline.
He admonished Canadians and their governments to communicate their concerns about the environment more effectively and to more concretely address the environmental concerns of American environmentalist.
There was no explaining why Obama was taking an eternity to decide. Everyone knows. No imagining what saying “no” could do to Canada’s economic recovery or their relationship. He only told them what they needed to hear: “What do they say to influential Americans?”
Nevertheless, his advice was unanimously accepted as “deft”. So, right now, Harper’s government and a wave of Canadian lobbyist ministers, executives, and premiers are being watched—and judged—by Canadian voters as they scramble to live up to Jacobson’s’ instructions.
Getting past Canada’s mediocre environment rhetoric—and talking about its somewhat superior performance in actually addressing CO2 emissions and its policy initiatives in both cap-and-trading and carbon taxing—will not impress US climate-change activists or their experts and friends in Washington. They know that neither Canada nor the US has a comprehensive plan to mobilize businesses and consumers to do their part to solve the problem.
Environmentalists have decided to concentrate on Canada’s shortcomings rather than America’s—for old-fashioned tactical reasons. Concentrating on Alberta’s oil sands is economically illiterate and scientifically trivial. Still, doing it makes news, does not scare liberals in swing states, raises money for public education, and keeps Hollywood activists on side.
In following the Jacobson line, Canadians and their Washington allies seem compelled to say silly things.
Claiming that the pipeline isn’t important environmentally (because the oil in question will get to the market anyway) shamelessly understates the damage that a negative decision would do to Canada—and the prospects of building an indispensable climate change consensus amongst North Americans and inside their capitals.
Unquestionably, killing Keystone XL would hurt capitalists in both countries. And it would provide a dramatic victory for those selling the suicidal idea that the free markets and conservatives and climate change and progressives must be in conflict.
Nevertheless, stopping this pipeline—even turning Alberta into a New England meadow—wouldn’t cut growing global demand for fossil fuels, diminish the longer-term profitability of the fossil fuel industry, or convince representatives in Congress to save the planet by doing in their districts what their government is agonizing about doing to Alberta.