Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird on Obama, pipelines and al-Qaeda in Mali

In conversation with Luiza Ch. Savage
Photographs by Keegan Bursaw

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was in Washington this week to attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama. As Americans gathered for the public ceremony and the black-tie galas, the minister attended the Canadian Embassy’s invitation-only inaugural “tailgate” party at its plum location on Pennsylvania Avenue, which featured Beavertails, Tim Hortons coffee and some of the best views in the U.S. capital.

Q: You’re here for the second inauguration of Barack Obama. Are you going to any balls?

A: No, I’m not. I’m not a ball guy.

Q: Can you imagine a million Canadians coming to Ottawa because a Prime Minister was taking the oath of office?

A: I was just telling someone that I remember when the Prime Minister was sworn in. I think we had cookies and coffee afterward. Then there was a dinner for the cabinet that evening, with the food prepared in the parliamentary restaurant. They certainly do things much grander here in the United States. The sense of national pride is exciting. One thing that is bittersweet for me is Hillary leaving. We had a great relationship.

Q: But she may not be leaving leaving . . . .

A: I totally agree.

Q: What is your top task while you are here?

A: It’s an opportunity to meet with influential people, key decision-makers and the people who influence the key decision-makers, to advance Canada’s interests.

Q: Is there a top issue you are here to press?

A: The Keystone XL pipeline is a significant priority. It’s not about the West. It’s not about energy. It’s about the future prosperity of the Canadian economy.

Q: The U.S. is undergoing its own oil and gas boom. There are estimates that it’ll become the biggest global producer of oil by 2020. Does that reduce the appetite for Canadian energy?

A: Energy independence has been a key goal for the last six presidents. This project is ready to go today. It’s ready to create tens of thousands of jobs today. The U.S. has a huge and growing demand for oil and energy—and I think Canada can play a key part in that.

Q: Many people had expected a decision on Keystone soon after the inauguration. But now the President has nominated Sen. John Kerry to replace Hillary Clinton. He is a big advocate for climate change policy and he is under pressure from environmentalists to reopen some of the State Department’s conclusions and environmental assessments. Could his appointment lead to additional delays?

A: I don’t know anyone who thought this would be approved in the first three weeks of 2013. We had a belief that a decision could come as early as the first quarter, but we don’t take that for granted. Obviously we want the presidential permit. We will be working hard with Sen. Kerry and the State Department and the White House on this.

Q: Will you meet with Sen. Kerry?

A: He is still Sen. Kerry. He has not been confirmed yet as Secretary of State. So he doesn’t meet with people in that role.

Q: The last time the Prime Minister spoke in Washington, he said that it’s in Canada’s national interest to diversify oil markets. But there is a lot of skepticism in Washington that a pipeline to the West Coast will get built. Will the U.S. remain the main market for this oil?

A: Frankly, it’s not an either/or—we need both. We need to increase our capacity to sell Canadian oil to the United States and we need to be able to open up Asian markets.

Q: Does it help that Republicans are so strongly behind the pipeline, or does that it make it more polarized and more difficult?

A: We appreciate the support, particularly of Senate Republicans. We’ve got a lot of Senate Democrats who are very supportive as well. It shouldn’t be a partisan issue. The key thing for us is to focus it on the pipeline. Canadian sovereignty—the issues on our side of the border—those issues should not be part of the decision.

Q: After Obama delayed the pipeline decision and then rejected the first route, [former ambassador to the U.S.] Derek Burney and [Carleton University professor] Fen Hampson wrote an article saying Obama was “losing Canada.” They said Canada-U.S. relations have “hit their lowest point in decades.” Do you think we’ll look back and say that this was when the two countries started to drift away from what had been a path to ever-closer integration?

A: No, absolutely not. The Prime Minister and the President have an excellent personal and professional relationship. Certainly I’ve enjoyed an excellent relationship with Hillary. The relationship is strong. The border security and regulatory co-operation deal announced in 2011 is an incredible accomplishment, and that came from the leadership of Prime Minister Harper. We were disappointed with the Keystone decision. But I think we’ll look back and think that was a delay rather than an obstacle.

Q: I’ve heard from energy analysts in Washington that it would be easier for the Obama administration to approve the pipeline if they could point to a Canadian strategy for meeting greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. Do you see the government doing more on that?

A: That’s not part of the equation. The American regulatory consideration is of the pipeline, not of the source of the oil. I think we’ve embraced the same targets President Obama has with respect to climate change and greenhouse gas reduction. Canada is the first country with a clear plan to get out of dirty coal-fired electricity generation. That will have substantial positive impacts on reducing GHGs. We’ve worked very co-operatively with the Obama administration on tailpipe emissions. We continue to take it step by step, so I think they’ll find a country that is out to match their commitment to GHG reduction.

Q: Turning to the crisis in North and West Africa, do you believe that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s expanding control of northern Mali presents a threat to Canada and Canadian interests?

A: I think the great struggle of our generation is the struggle against radical extremists and international terrorists wherever they are in the world. That’s not an issue exclusively about Mali’s neighbourhood. It’s an issue for all humanity.

Q: Do you think we should be doing more than lending a plane to France?

A: We don’t send Canadian Forces to tackle every threat. France requested one plane for one week. Our immediate response was yes. They made additional requests later in the week. We are reflecting on that. There can be a role for Canada diplomatically. There can be a role for Canada pushing Mali back onto a democratic track. There can be a role for Canada on humanitarian aid. We have provided in excess of $150 million in the last couple of years. There can be a role for us in supporting the African Union. We are reflecting on that right now.

Q: Critics in the U.S. say its relations with Israel have deteriorated. Where does that leave Canada?

A: I think irrespective of the relationship Israel has with the U.S., Canada is their best friend.

Q: There is this unresolved contradiction about whether or not the Prime Minister called Prime Minister Netanyahu to disagree over settlements. The Israeli PM says no. Is Canada’s voice not being heard on that?

A: I think Canada’s view on the expansion of settlements is well-known. At the same time, we are not taken to hectoring close allies.

Q: What is Canada’s role with regard to the Arab Spring?

A: I think we’ve engaged in a big way across North Africa and in some parts of the Middle East on this issue. We were actively engaged with Tunisia, we played a major role in Libya. We have been supporting civil society in Egypt, particularly around the issue of the role of women in the new Egypt and the role of religious minorities. We’d like to do more there. We’ve seen good reform in Jordan and in Morocco. We remain engaged.

Q: What is top of mind while you are here?

A: The situation in Syria continues to be big on the agenda. Of course, the Prime Minister has said this and I have said this: the biggest threat to international peace and security is Iran. It’s not just its nuclear program, it’s also its abhorrent human rights record—which is deteriorating—and its unconstructive engagement in the region, supporting Hezbollah and Hamas and Assad.

Q: Is there any point at which Canada would support the use of force against the nuclear program in Iran?

A: I think the entire civilized world has got to put all of our energy into a diplomatic solution. The sanctions, over the last four to six months, have begun to really bite the Iranian currency. Thus far we have not seen a change in attitude from the Supreme Leader. But we work closely with the U.S., the U.K., [British politician] Catherine Ashton and the P5+1 process. We maintain the toughest sanctions on Iran of any country, and we will continue to work with like-minded allies.

Q: But the U.S. position is that it’s not off the table, a military option.

A: I think President Obama has spoken very loudly and clearly on this issue, and the regime in Tehran should take note.

Q: And do we support that position?

A: I agree with President Obama’s position.