In The Media

Keystone XL would be initial test for Kerry

by  Sneh Duggal (feat. Colin Robertson)

January 9, 2013

United States President Barack Obama’s picks for his next secretaries of state and defence are good for Canada because both bring with them years of experience and some knowledge about their northern neighbour, say former diplomats and other observers.

But one former Canadian ambassador to the US said that whether their nominations would dramatically affect the Canada-US relationship would depend more on what happens in other parts of the world.

Mr. Obama announced Dec. 21 that he had chosen 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry to become the next secretary of state. Mr. Kerry is a Massachusetts Democrat and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He would replace US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has said she will not seek a second term.

On Jan. 7, the US president also announced his pick of former Republican senator Chuck Hagel to replace US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who announced the same day that he was stepping down.

If their nominations are approved, it would mean that two of the Obama administrations’ most internationally-focused secretaries would be Vietnam War veterans. Mr. Hagel would be the first Vietnam vet to lead the military.

The US Senate would need to confirm both nominees.

Foreign Minister John Baird “looks forward to working with Senator Kerry to continue building on the important relationship with our closest ally, biggest trading partner, and next-door neighbour,” wrote Joseph Lavoie, a spokesperson for Mr. Baird, in an email to Embassy.

Mr. Baird was quick to send out congratulatory remarks to Mr. Kerry on Dec. 21. The foreign minister sent out two tweets: the first one congratulated Mr. Kerry, while the second read that “I would also like to wish @JohnKerry the best of luck during the confirmation process—and I hope to see him soon.”


‘Knowledge of Canada’

Adam Chapnick, deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College, said it would be important for Canada that Washington push through the confirmation process as quickly as possible. 

“We have an interest in a stable, predictable international order, so having either of the positions…unfilled for any significant period of time is therefore not helpful to us,” Mr. Chapnick said.

Former diplomat Colin Robertson said that if their nominations go through, it would be important for Mr. Baird and Defence Minister Peter MacKay to make personal contact with their American counterparts quickly.

This could mean a telephone call of congratulations, “followed by a personal meeting preferably in Washington rather than at a multilateral forum where they will be besieged by others with the same objective,” said Mr. Robertson, who is currently a senior strategic advisor with McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP.

“I think it’s always good to have experienced knowledgeable practitioners and Hagel and Kerry are both of those, and they also both have some knowledge of Canada,” Mr. Robertson said.

“These are the kinds of appointments that will work to a good relationship, you want people like this, and you don’t want people that are having to learn everything from the start,” he said, noting the importance of both having the president’s confidence.

Those following Canada-US relations and politics say that Mr. Kerry’s approval process should go smoothly.

“It looks like Senator Kerry will receive a lot of support in the Senate and will have a fairly easy time with the nomination process and will be approved,” said David Wilkins, former US ambassador to Canada.

While it is difficult to predict what exactly Mr. Kerry’s nomination would mean for Canada, the senator does have some connections.

Being from the northeastern state of Massachusetts means Mr. Kerry is very familiar with Canada, said Mr. Wilkins, who is currently a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP. 

"I think that bodes well for Canada,” he said.

Paul Frazer, a Washington-based consultant to Canadian business and government in Canada-US relations, agreed.

“I think [he] has a healthy understanding and appreciation of the relationship with Canada, particularly because of his chairmanship of the foreign affairs committee for some time, but I think there’s always a need to enhance that understanding,” he said.

“[He] has a long experience in the foreign affairs field and I think that’s very good for Canada, and for others,” Mr. Frazer said.

Michael Kergin, who was the Canadian ambassador to the US from 2000-2005 and is currently a senior advisor at Bennett Jones, said people from the moderate northeast region in the US tend to think more like Canadians when it comes to governance and international policies.

But he added that the secretary of state usually doesn’t involve him or herself as much in the bilateral relationship with Canada. More interaction would occur on big issues like Afghanistan, or foreign policy differences.

Mr. Robertson said Mr. Kerry and Mr. Hagel’s interactions with their Canadian counterparts would likely be more bilateral on the defence side and more multilateral on foreign affairs topics.

He said that in both cases they would start with issues such as what is happening in Syria, how to deal with Iran, and then other places like Libya, Afghanistan, and Myanmar.

The secretary of state wouldn’t get as involved unless Canada was a bit more of a player internationally, Mr. Kergin said.

“Right now I would say we’re not a huge factor in their global thinking,” he said.

And ultimately, it’s still the president who directs foreign policy, Mr. Frazer noted.

Mr. Kergin pointed out that the Obama administration has used its secretary of state for more of a representational type of role than as a decider on foreign policy.

“Much will depend on things that happen outside North America,” he said.


Pipeline politics

Mr. Wilkins said the initial test for Mr. Kerry would be his position on the Keystone XL pipeline and “how quickly that’s dealt when he becomes the secretary of state, and whether or not he will approve it.”

Mr. Kergin said Mr. Kerry might on the surface be a bit more skeptical about the pipeline because he’s an environmentalist, but he added that he thinks the White House is going to manage the file aside from the environmental impact assessment.

But Stephen Blank, a Fulbright Research Chair in governance and public administration at the University of Ottawa, said that he doubts either of the nominees has really thought at all about Canada in terms of issues between the two countries.

He said some of the critical issues relate to the two countries looking at their infrastructure and competitiveness, a North American energy strategy, and changing climate.

As for Mr. Kerry’s relations with Mr. Baird, the consensus among analysts is that they will likely make for a good team.

“I’m sure they’d get along extremely well; they’d make a point of doing that,” Mr. Kergin said.

Mr. Frazer said Mr. Baird’s personality is one of his real strengths when working internationally and when working with his counterparts.

“He demonstrated that with [Ms. Clinton] and I think he’ll demonstrate that as well with Senator Kerry,” Mr. Frazer said.

He said building personal ties would also be important.

“Now that the NHL is coming back to life, I’d invite [Mr. Kerry] to a hockey game,” he said.

“He’s a great hockey player, he loves hockey, he’s a great athlete and I think that we shouldn’t discount the value of those kinds of personal interests when we think about how people hit it off and where they can have a meeting of minds on a more personal level,” Mr. Frazer said.

Mr. Frazer said that because some defence issues are tied to foreign policy, where there is interaction between Mr. MacKay and Mr. Kerry, the two would hit it off as well. The fact that both of them are from the Maritimes in their respective countries is another link, he added.

Mr. Wilkins said that Mr. Hagel’s approval “will meet with a lot of Republican opposition.” Mr. Hagel has taken heat for his comments on Iran and Israel. But if he survives the nomination process, Mr. Robertson expects that Mr. Hagel and Mr. MacKay will also get along.

Mr. Hagel has likely run across the Canadian military during his own military career, he said.

“MacKay will be appropriately respectful of Hagel, who’s probably 20 years older and a real warrior, but equally Hagel will have respect for MacKay.”

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