Exit interview with U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson

... on the differences between Canadians and Americans


U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson in conversation with Luiza Ch. Savage:

This summer, David Jacobson steps down from the position of U.S. ambassador to Canada, which he has held since 2009. A lawyer and big-dollar fundraiser for the U.S. President, Jacobson’s tenure was marked by progress between the two countries on border co-operation—and by the drawn-out controversy over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would bring oil-sands crude from Alberta to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Jacobson plans to head back to his hometown of Chicago, where he will become a senior executive at the U.S. headquarters of the Bank of Montreal.

Q: Do you have a favourite memory from your four years in Canada?
A: I have so many . . .

Q: Pick one.
A: The Olympics were pretty special. Someone asked me if I was going to go to the London Olympics and I said the only Olympics I’ve gone to, and the only Olympics I will ever go to, were in Vancouver. The reason is you just can’t do it any better.There was also a trip to Afghanistan to see American and Canadian soldiers who were fighting side by side. Driving a Zamboni was pretty cool. There are just so many. I’ve seen so many amazing places and met so many interesting people. I refer to them as my “pinch me” moments. I think to myself, “Just pinch me, I can’t believe I’m here.”

Q: What does an ambassador really do besides host nice dinners and give speeches?
A: When I came here, I wasn’t sure I understood it. There are two roles an ambassador has, I believe. One is to explain the United States and what is going on to the Canadian government and the Canadian people. The other is the flip side of that, to understand the best I can what is going on in Canada and explain it to the folks in Washington. There are a lot of things you do to be able to do that: You travel, you meet political and business leaders, you go to dinners and develop personal relationships with people. I am the guy in the middle. I am translating America to Canada and translating Canada to America. That’s, I think, at its core, what the job is.

Q: So what gets lost in translation? Canadians and Americans think they know each other pretty well.
A: The differences between our countries are quite subtle and, in that sense, it’s harder in my mind to understand those differences.
There is a difference of culture between our countries. I have come to understand that Canada is probably a more cohesive society than the U.S. This is a generalization and there are exceptions, but I think Canadians care a great deal about one another. They are very concerned about the welfare of the collective group. In the U.S., on balance, we probably are more interested in individuality than Canada is. We have different ways of dealing with our immigrant populations, Canada being more of this mosaic notion, and the U.S. more of the melting pot. I think the U.S. has a position in the world that is different from Canada’s—we are a much bigger country that, quite frankly, has more influence in the world—and that affects the ways Canadians and American think. One of the things I’ve learned is to attempt to be very aware of those differences.

Q: As you prepare to leave and you look back on the four years, what would you say has been your biggest achievement during your time in Canada?
A: The Beyond the Border agreement is probably the thing that will be the most remembered, and the regulatory co-operation efforts. The thing I am probably the most happy with—this is isn’t about me; in all these things I was involved, but they’re not my doing—is that there is a clear and greater realization than probably existed previously of the fundamental strength and importance of the relationship of both sides. Disputes don’t cause enormous blow-ups. Contrast how people reacted to the trade dispute over softwood lumber in the past, versus the trade dispute over country-of-origin food labelling today. Things come up from time to time and put strains on it, but they don’t break it. The problems we have in the relationship between the U.S. and Canada are high-class problems. Most countries in the world, if asked to exchange our problems for the problems they have with their neighbours, would do it in a minute.

Q: What do you leave on the to-do list for your successor?
A: I think the fundamental issues are almost eternal: trade, border, environment. The Keystone XL pipeline is something that is still going to be around. There is much unfinished work on Beyond the Border and a lot of unfinished work on the Regulatory Cooperation Council. There is the continual effort that will have to be struck on our need for energy to support our economy and our desire to preserve the climate and maintain the environment. That is an issue that will come up over and over again in the context of infrastructure.

Q: There has been so much drama around Keystone XL and a decision has taken longer than expected. What can we do better, next time there’s a proposal for a piece of cross-border infrastructure?
A: It’s not just infrastructure that crosses the border. There are infrastructure projects in Canada and in the U.S. You guys are struggling with the same issues with Northern Gateway as we are with Keystone XL. One of the things we can do is to continue to be more and more responsible with the way we extract and use energy. I think there has been progress in both countries. I am personally very concerned about the environment and about climate change. These are important issues. But on the other hand, I drive to work every day, and the lights are on in my office. We have to figure out what the balance is.

Q: Do you know when we can expect a decision by the president on a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline?
A: I can’t give a date. There is a process. Once the State Department has a final environmental-impact statement, there is a 90-day comment period. Then they have to prepare a National Interest Determination based on what they hear. Then, once that’s done, it is circulated back to federal agencies and there is another 15-day period. If other agencies accept it, it becomes final; if they reject it, it goes up to the White House. It’s at least 90 days, plus 15, plus some. So do the arithmetic. The earliest it could legally be is 105 days from today.

Q: You mention the National Interest Determination, which will look at factors beyond environmental, such as energy security and foreign relations. Do you think that, at any point in that process, the administration will give any weight to how a decision will affect relations with Canada?
A: That is one of the factors, explicitly: the impact on bilateral relations.

Q: Do you give them any advice on that?
A: I don’t think I should go into the discussions I’ve had about it. That is a factor. The environmental consequences are a factor, the economic consequences, the energy consequences—there are a variety of factors and they all have to go into a determination of whether it is in the national interest of the United States to allow the pipeline to cross the border.

Q: Is it safe to say it’s being assessed by the White House and it would have a negative effect on bilateral relations to say “no”?
A: I’m not going to speculate on what would happen if the decision was negative or positive. I do understand the issue and I do understand the consequences—as do the people in Washington who are responsible for this decision. But I’m not sure it would be helpful for me to speculate on what-ifs.

Q: The Canadian government has made an effort to communicate to Washington what it’s doing on the environment. But would it have helped to have an even better environmental record?
A: It would have helped the U.S. to have a better environmental record, going into this conversation. If we were doing all the things people say we should be doing, there wouldn’t be a problem. On whether Canada has done a good job of explaining its position to decision-makers in the U.S., I think they have. We understand it. Now it’s a question of weighing it. They are difficult judgments.

Q: So are you now heading off to the Bank of Montreal?
A: The Bank of Montreal, that’s what we’re going back to. The good news for me—and hopefully, the Bank of Montreal—is that I’ll be able to come up here with some frequency.

Q: So you just can’t leave Canada behind .
A: I have absolutely no desire to. We have loved it here, we really have. We have become very fond of the Canadian people in general and a lot of them individually. It’s a beautiful country, a kind country. It has been great for me and my whole family, and we are very grateful for it.

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