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“Screw the Canadians and be good to the Venezuelans.”

So Richard Nixon advised his aides in 1970. This was about oil; the Canadians were not doing what U.S. officials wanted.  So screw them.

Forty-two years later, the situation is quite different. Mitt Romney wants to fully embrace Canadian crude oil so that we no longer have to import oil “from the Middle East or Venezuela or anywhere else where we don’t want to.” The U.S. should adopt, according to Romney, a policy of importing energy from Canada and Mexico exclusively.  His campaign refers to the idea as “North American Energy Independence.”

But it’s not a new idea. For more than forty years, just about every time there has been a problem with energy, some politician has proposed a North American energy pact or Western Hemisphere energy integration. As political scientist Joseph Nye noted more than 30 years ago, the Western Hemisphere approach was a “commonly touted solution to the energy crisis.” In the late 1970s, significant finds of oil and gas in Mexico and a new energy crisis inspired three congressional resolutions calling for a “North American Energy Community.”               

After all, who can you trust more than your neighbors?

But of course, neighbors don’t always stay friendly.  Venezuela’s current leader is not exactly an American ally. Canada is surely friendly but, like every country, its leaders will consider domestic political concerns over ours.  Mexico has generally been eager to sell us energy resources, but as Carter-era documents noted, Mexican officials are criticized any time they seemed to be getting too close to the U.S.  A National Security Council analysis in 1979 cautioned, “Deep-seated political sensitivities in Mexico seriously constrain our ability to influence the evolution of Mexican energy policies. These sensitivities are based on the long-standing fear of domination by the United States.”

The lesson is simple: what is true about bilateral relations today does not guarantee the same tomorrow. This is especially noteworthy since North American energy independence means we would be dependent on two countries that would not be dependent on us. The strategy presupposes bilateral constancy; our good friends will never let us down, even if it might be in their interest to do so. The past and current state of our relations with Venezuela should remind us: we can be good to a country when it’s in our interests to be good to them, but there’s no reason why they will always reciprocate unless it’s in their interests.

There may come day a when a foreign leader of an oil-rich neighbor says, “Screw the U.S. and be good to the Chinese.”

Then so much for energy independence and a grand, exclusionary regional policy.

Image: North America via Shutterstock