Dealing with Obama or McCain: think big and keep it simple

Excerpted from Policy Options Dealing with Obama or McCain: think big and keep it simple October 2008

1. Think Big: Understand the American agenda and the ‘burden of primacy’. American leadership likes to talk ‘big picture’ geo-politics and, when we apply ourselves, we have both capacity and capability to bring to the table.

2. Play Smart: Playing smart means bringing the intelligence of our own global networks and the uniquely Canadian advantages created by migration (Asians making up half of our new immigrants) and commerce to the table. Sure we’ve got issues – usually inspired by sectional interests who’ve found the ear of Congress. But to demand the administration fix it betrays an ignorance of the American constitution and the relative power and responsibility of the legislative and executive branch. The temptation to put “the condominium” issues at the top of the Canadian agenda may satisfy the immediate appetites of the media entourage and certain domestic constituencies but the effect of the laundry list on the Administration is to make them wonder about our interest in the Big Picture and, by consequence, our capacity to play in the Big League. A more effective approach is to offer constructive advice and solution-minded initiatives on those issues at the top of the American agenda and then to get to the “small ball” stuff. At the same time, the better approach to the condominium issues is to continue to improve our advocacy effort at the state level and with Congress, while seeking the advice and enlisting the support of the Administration.

3.  Keep it Simple: Go first for that which is easy to achieve and that will visibly show a change for the better. Faster passage at border points, for example. Change always exacerbates public anxiety especially around health and safety standards and perceptions of sovereignty. Like a hockey game you need rules and penalties but administered with a light touch. Canadians, like the rest of the world, should be mindful that the US occasionally will exercise their right to the trap door. One approach does not fit every situation. History tells us that most enduring and successful arrangements are bi-national –  NORAD is a good example, then bilateral, like the International Joint Commission.

4.  Remember former  Secretary Jim Baker’s advice – “prepare, prepare, prepare” : This has particular relevance to Canadians when negotiating with Americans. The United States usually doesn’t pay attention until the third period when they put their A-team on the field and change their play-book. That’s when preparation pays off. We should plan for NAFTA being brought to the table with the next administration. With the challenge comes the opportunity for discussion of the energy security of Canadian oil sands development and increased supply and the related issues of continental carbon management and labour mobility.

5.  Success is more likely when we take a “Team Canada Inc” approach recognizing that our relationship with the United States is neither classically international nor domestic  but falls somewhere in between – “intermestic” for want of a better word.  The strength lies in what I call our  hidden wiring, that network of connections below the headlines – governors and premiers, mayors, legislators, business and labor associations, sports teams and the web of family. Mindful of the regional nature of North America, I argue for a series of annual ‘State of the Relationship’ conferences in partnership with business and labour.

6.  To paraphrase James Carville, “its security stupid”: When America is at war and fearful of things that go bang at 3 AM, we need to remind Americans that ‘We have their back’. In comparative terms, we pay relatively little rent to defend ourselves in North America thanks to NATO and NORAD and NORTHCOM. We have to take every occasion to point out explicitly the ongoing investments that we are making to secure our perimeter and especially, in the North where the Pentagon has geo-political considerations. This is a currency that Americans understand. Arguably, the interoperability with American forces that characterizes our air and naval cooperation should be applied to our land forces as well, as we are doing in Afghanistan and through relief missions as in East Timor. There is also a practical dimension. The Pentagon is also the source of significant contracting opportunities and Canada has long been the single largest foreign source of these contracts.

What Eisenhower described as the military-industrial complex of the United States includes players like the National Security Council, Congress, the Pentagon as well as the defence industries.  In the  “long, twilight” war on terror campaign, the Pentagon trumps the State Department. And it has considerable weight in Congress – largest committee membership in both House and Senate. And we should never forget that almost a quarter of those in Congress have experience in uniform. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because traditional diplomacy requires the State Department to be the primary interlocutor on foreign policy and relations with the administration it is, therefore, the principal player in the determination of American national security policy. They fail to understand that making national security policy is a bit like playing Star Trek chess – it occurs at various tables on different levels.

7.  Being There: In the smorgasbord of American politics, you can always identify like-minded groups or individuals and develop allies, regardless of party. On almost any issue there will be more Americans who think like Canadians than there are Canadians. But you have to be there. I recommend that we expand our presence to include every state of the union. Start by hiring expatriates working out of their homes with the mandate to market and promote Canada and, by targeting legislators, to create a strong positive image of Canada as friend, ally and partner. It’s diplomacy but done differently – using the Internet and telephone drawing on local chambers of commerce

In the American system, local and state governments play a critical role in the progress of legislators. Unlike Canadians, Americans seem to expect their leadership to do their apprenticeship at the local/state level. Four of the last six presidents were governors, and Senator MCain chose the governor of a Northern Exposure state, Sarah Palin of Alaska, as his running mate. Ten former governors now sit in the Senate. McCain served in Congress before his election to the Senate and Obama served in the state legislature in Illinois.

  1. Bring ‘em up here: Inviting American legislators to visit Canada should be an ongoing project. And, as members of Congress often remarked when I was on the Hill, make time for building camaraderie on the golf course, or for what Americans particularly enjoy in Canada –  fishing and hunting.

9.  Enhance the “Canadian Brand” in the United States: For a model, look to the “Upper North Side” campaign waged in New York City. A ‘Think Big’ strategy is needed.

10.  Political will: It starts at the top. Relationships matter but, as former Secretary of State George Shultz would remind us, they are like gardens. They need constant cultivation. The asymmetry of the relationship means that prime ministers must prod presidents to achieve action and results. And initiative involves risk and challenge.  In Parliament, there are those in each party whose natural instinct is to oppose anything involving the United States. Parts of the cultural literati sound the alarm whenever they feel our sovereignty is at risk. The Afghan campaign, for example, is often interpreted by the Canadian left through the prism of Iraq; yet in the U.S. the Democrats, beginning with Barack Obama, understand the difference between the two theatres.

The American Revolution, or War of Independence (perspective is everything), created two nations. For too long, selective interpretations of Canadian-American relations have portrayed Canada as unequal or subjugated. This mindset has held us back from engaging the Americans as partners and mutual beneficiaries in the bounty of our shared geography.

It took nearly three quarters of a century for us to exorcise the ghosts of Laurier’s 1911 defeat on free trade. Brian Mulroney’s courage and boldness rewarded Canada with prosperity and security. Now we need to slay the insecurities around our identity by defining ourselves, not by what we are not, but by what we are and what we have achieved. There is much to celebrate: a pluralism where diversity can flourish; accommodation, through innovation in transportation and communication, to a vast land and harsh climate; a flourishing cultural literacy and a sense of humour; and a record of standing up to be counted whether the threat come from fascism, communism or terrorism, tempered by a commitment to diplomacy and building institutions that make for a better world.

‘Place, standing and perspective,’ coupled with Canadian sensitivity and sensibility, mean that when we’re on game, we have the privilege, observed John Holmes, that most astute practitioner and observer of Canadian foreign policy – “to tell our best friends when their breath is bad”. Geographic propinquity gives us ‘place,’ especially given the American preoccupation with national security. The diversity of our population and especially the networks that we gain through immigration gives us ‘standing’  and an ability to ‘Think Big’ on the major developments of our time, like the rise of China and India and climate change. Our global diplomatic service also gives us a different perspective, especially on places like Cuba and the quiet work we are doing on governance. Played effectively, our global relationships have immense value. And our relationship with the United States gives us a unique influence as interpreter of America to the world and to America on the world.

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