Canada US Roadmap

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Colin Robertson  March 14, 2021

Are we ready to take our most important relationship to the next level of partnership?

The “Roadmap for a Renewed Canada-US Partnership”, announced during the virtual meeting in February of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Joe Biden, is the latest iteration in managing neighbourly relations. Beginning with the last century’s trade and security agreements negotiated by Mackenzie King and Franklin Roosevelt, this century has included the Smart Border AccordSecurity and Prosperity PartnershipBeyond the Border and Regulatory Cooperation.

The seven goals enumerated in the Roadmap spell out current shared objectives:

  • Combating COVID-19 at home and abroad.
  • Building Back Better in sustainable fashion that also addresses new threats like cyber and rebuilds the infrastructure necessary for continental competitiveness.
  • Accelerating Climate Ambitions starting with a common approach between Canada and the US on things like carbon pricing, complementary standards on emissions, sharing R&D and innovation.
  • Advancing Diversity and Inclusion with the focus on disadvantaged groups – women, visible minorities, Indigenous peoples – in recognition that the rising tide of globalization did not lift all boats.
  • Bolstering Security and Defence including modernization of NORAD, especially its North Warning System.
  • Building Global Alliances to address the threat posed by authoritarians, recognizing that Canada must do more to share the cost burden with a commitment to reach the NATO defence spending target of 2 percent of GDP by 2024.This also means reforming our multilateral institutions, notably the WTO where Canada is leading reform efforts, and WHO.

For the Biden administration the Roadmap is not only a framework for managing the Canada relationship but a demonstration to its democratic friends that the US is serious about re-invigorating its alliances and reasserting US leadership of the rules-based order that successive presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama had led and sustained. Biden’s pledge that “America is back” begins with Canada.

For Canada, the Roadmap is a remarkable opportunity to re-set the US relationship and take it to a new level in terms of economic, environmental and security cooperation. It will require investment of money, resources and time and to succeed it needs to be a team Canada effort with the active support of the premiers, the Official Opposition, federal and provincial legislators as well as business, labour and civil society.

Progress on the roadmap requires focus, constant engagement and a recognition that we need to get as much done as possible before the US midterms in 2022 and that the clock runs out by the next presidential election in 2024.

This means building cross-party consensus, at least betwee the Liberals and Conservatives to ensure there the approach does not change if there a change in government. This is how we sustained NAFTA in the transition to the Chrétien goverment from the Mulroney-Campbell governments and on CETA and the TPP from the Harper to Trudeau governments. The First Ministers must be involved; issues like infrastructure and resources, involve their authorities.

Getting it done is always the hard part. Derek Burney, who served as Brian Mulroney’s chief of staff and then as our ambassador in Washington from 1989-93, would remind us often as we strategized about high policy that vision was important but what was vital was “Getting It Done” (and he so titled his erudite memoir.)

We need to recognize the asymmetries of our relationship, especially in economics and security. Bluntly, the US matters more to us than we matter to them. For Canada this means focus and continuous engagement. We level the playing field through a network of rules and agreements – at last count well over 20,000 – and institutions, preferably binational like NORAD, and the International Joint Commission, founded in 1909 with a view to managing the water along the world’s longest border.

Most of our diplomacy is conducted either bilaterally or multilaterally; we sit on opposite sides of the table. But binational means, at least in theory, that we operate together – side by side – for mutually beneficial results. It’s the antithesis of Donald Trump’s winner-take-all.

We need to recognize the asymmetries of our relationship, especially in economics and security. Bluntly, the US matters more to us than we matter to them.

We are deeply, deeply integrated economically – a process that began before the Second World Wat and has continued, despite bumps, ever since with the Autopact in 1965,  the Canada-US FTA in 1989, the NAFTA in 1993 and now NAFTA 2.0 including Mexico in 2020. Sixty-four cents of every dollar we generate comes from trade with the US, our main trading partner buying 75 percent of our exports (the European Union takes about 8 percent and China 4 percent). The US makes over half of our imports. Almost half of our foreign investment comes from the US. The US also provides our security blanket. We became allies before WWII, negotiating wartime defence production agreements and then the Atlantic alliance, NATO, in 1949 and the North American Air Defence Command, NORAD, in 1957.

We share the top half of our continent. The third, often forgotten but increasingly important piece in our institutional architecture, is our joint stewardship of the environment. The IJC has successfully managed our waterways for over a century.

Together, these institutions represent a continuous process of constant engagement.

So how do we get it done?

Allan Gotlieb, our longest serving US ambassador from 1981-89 set out a Decalogue of observations on “working Washington” in his 1991 book I’ll be with you in a minute, Mr. Ambassador: The Education of a Canadian Diplomat in WashingtonStill relevant, these three are especially current:

  1. The particular process by which a decision is reached in Washington is often so complex and mysterious that it defies comprehension.
  2. Since there are so many participants in decision-making, so many special-interest and pressure groups and so many shifting alliances, a diplomat cannot design any grand or overarching strategy to further his nation’s interests. Every issue requires its own micro-strategy and every micro-strategy is unique.
  3. No permanent solutions are within reach of the ambassador or his government, only temporary ones. Instability is the norm, alliances and coalitions are always being forged, forces and counterforces are always mounting.

While posted in Washington I kept a copy of Gotlieb’s book on my desk,  alongside the US Constitution, From my own experience of working on Canada-US relations beginning  with an assignment to New York in 1978, to Los Angeles as Consul General as first head of our Embassy’s Advocacy Secretariat, serving as part of the teams that negotiated the Canada-US FTA and then NAFTA, then working for a decade with both a US-based law firm and what is now the Business Council of Canada,  I’ve come up with these “Ten Rules of the Road” for getting it done when dealing with Uncle Sam:

  1. Get our collective act together because the Americans will always exploit our differences. Know what is our “ask” and what is our “give”. Know our facts, offer solutions not whinging. Public diplomacy is as important as closed-door diplomacy. Be brief, be blunt, be bold.
  2. Americans like big ideas that solve their problems. Go for gold: ask for what we really want rather than what we think they will give us. If we don’t take the initiative, then we take what is on offer.
  3. No surprises, especially in issues of national security. Security trumps all else. Americans expect a reliable ally.
  4. We have three overriding messages: We have your back. We are a trusted trading partner, “making things together” with our goods, services and resources fueling. And “Build Back Better”: As co-tenants of our continent we are joint stewards of our land, water and air.
  5. Make it a US issue and identify American friends, keeping in mind an adversary on one issue can be an ally on another, so never burn bridges. We can disagree without being disagreeable.
  6. Play by American rules, using lobbyists and lawyers. There are always more Americans who think like Canadians than there are Canadians.
  7. The American system is different from ours: read its Constitution to understand its checks and balances and separation of powers. The Administration is our entry point but the battleground is Congress, the states and cities. Beware of congressional noise: most proposed legislation fails.  Save the Oval Office for what is really important.
  8. Protectionism is as American as apple pie and as old as the Republic. For legislators, who must fundraise daily, all trade, like all politics, is local, so Canadians need to know the jobs generated by our trade and investment. Don’t ask for an exemption, ask for reciprocal treatment – that’s the art of the deal. And like politics, if you are not on the offence, you’re playing defence. There’s one trade bullet we can’t repeat often enough—Canada is the largest international customer of 37 US states.
  9. Americans like us more than we like them. But business is business and the business of America is business so don’t ever expect gratitude for what we think we did for them.
  10. It’s a permanent campaign requiring engagement at every level early and often. We need a thousand points of contact: PM to President, premiers & governors, cabinets, legislators, mayors, B2B, L2L, civil society.

Get this right and we not only advance Canadian objectives, we enhance our international standing. Brian Mulroney, the prime minister who best understands the US, has put it this way: “There is a rule of global politics–Canada’s influence in the world is measured to a significant degree by the extent to which we are perceived as having real influence in Washington.”

Know our facts, offer solutions not whinging. Public diplomacy is as important as closed-door diplomacy. Be brief, be blunt, be bold.

Have a thought for Biden. He faces the most formidable set of challenges of any president since FDR took power in 1933, when America was reeling under the Great Depression. For us to achieve progress on our new Roadmap we need to keep always in the situational awareness of the many challenges confronting the Biden-Harris administration. We should be helpful, wherever possible, because a healthy and prosperous Canada depends on a healthy, prosperous and strong America.

In his inaugural address President Biden outlined the crises – health, economic, social, and climate – as well as his determination to re-embrace multilateralism and restore American leadership.

The pandemic is job one. It has claimed over a half million American lives. More Americans have died from COVID than were killed in combat during in the First and Second World Wars as well as Vietnam. Biden is on track with his pledge of 100 million vaccinations in the first 100 days of his administration. Indeed, he now promises all Americans will have access to vaccines by summer.

The economic malaise caused by the pandemic is compounded by the larger forces of ongoing technological change and globalization. Jobless claims remain well above the worst levels of the Great Recession. At 100 percent debt-to-GDP US debt is higher than any other time in US history outside of the Second World War. Canada, by comparison, is about 50 percent  debt-to-GDP.

Americans, perhaps more than other nation, believed they were an exceptional people – living in what Ronald Reagan famously called “the city on the hill” – a new world where if you work hard, you too can succeed.  But now polls tell us most Americans think their children will be worse off than themselves. The top 10 percent of Americans now own over 70 percent of the country’s wealth; the top 1 percent controls more national income than the bottom 50 percent. Average income growth of the top 1 percent rose by 226 percent from 1979 to 2016; while working- and middle-class income distribution was comparatively flat.

Economic turmoil contributes to a social crisis complicated and compounded by race, gender, class and culture.  The trial of the Minneapolis cop who killed George Floyd casts a beacon on the grievances underlying Black Lives Matter:  if you are black you are twice as likely to die of COVID and three times more likely to be hospitalized. Black unemployment rates are double that of whites.  The net worth for median black households in the United States stands at $20,000 compared to $180,000 for whites.

There is renewed migrant pressure on the southern border from those fleeing crime, corruption and bad government. This movement helped propel Trump to the White House on the promise of building a wall to keep them out.

Then there is climate change, with the attendant complications of biodiversity and pollution – rising temperatures and freak weather, wildfires, hurricanes, tornados, freezes, and floods of biblical proportion. According to NASA, 2020 tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record.

Biden must manage all these crises against a profound political divide that has galvanized partisans on both sides. Republican and Democratic voters not only disagree over plans and policies but they also disagree on “basic facts.”  The 68.7 percent  with over 155 million casting ballots meant that 2020 saw the highest voter turnout since 1900. A switch of only 124,000 votes in just four states would have meant a second Trump administration.

Despite the loss of the White House and both houses of Congress, the Republican Party remains Donald Trump’s partyMost Republicans still believe that the election was stolen. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell declared Trump was “morally responsible” for the January 6 attack on the Capitol,  but he and all but seven of his Senate caucus still voted against his conviction following his impeachment by the House.

The political challenge for Biden is not only inter-party but intra-party,  pitting the progressive wing led by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, among others, – against the moderates – Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. As Will Rogers once remarked: “I am not a member of any organized party. I am a Democrat”.

In his inaugural address, Biden has set himself three overriding priorities: to revive and sustain the middle class; to fix the environment and to restore American leadership of the free world.  He and his team believe that wellbeing – economic, environment, health, social – is the best antidote to populism and the way to defend democracy.

It starts at home. As Biden put it at the Munich Security Conference: “We’re at an inflection point between those who argue, given all the challenges we face— from the fourth industrial revolution to a global pandemic—that autocracy is the best way forward… and those who understand that democracy is essential—essential to meeting those challenges.” To meet these challenges Biden said the US must “put ourselves in a position of strength  to be able to deal with the challenges we face around the world,” And that starts at home.

The Economist Intelligence Unit ranks America’s democracy behind Japan, Korea and Germany – those it helped to create. According to Pew only a fifth of Americans trust the government all or some of the time.

In his 1862 address to Congress, while waging the Civil War, President Lincoln said, “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

We want the US to succeed.  We want Joe Biden to succeed.

We want a united and democratic America just like we want a united, democratic Canada.

We all want to see a return to optimism and pragmatism – the can-do spirit that has been the enduring American characteristic and one that we all admire.

We can do a great deal together and with the rules of the road in mind, get it done.

The US, political scientist Ian Bremmer recently observed, is a country of contradictions. It set the global standard on game-changing vaccines while leading the world in COVID deaths and hospitalizations.

Its markets were at record highs while the Capitol Building was stormed by violent insurrectionists on January 6. It landed the new Mars mission while Texas endured third world-like power outages.

For all its innovation and entrepreneurship, the politics of the United States are profoundly dysfunctional and getting worse. At his confirmation hearing, Attorney General Garland Merrick vowed to prioritize domestic terrorism.

Authoritarianism – whether monarchies, dictators or oligarchies – not freedom and democracy, has been the prevailing system  of government for most of recorded history. Once more we have an authoritarian model – Xi Jinping’s China – one where their economy has done better than any democracy each year for 30 years.

We all want to see a return to optimism and pragmatism – the can-do spirit that has been the enduring American characteristic and one that we all admire.

As democracies turn inward, authoritarianism surges,  contributing to the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, according to Freedom House’s annual assessment of political rights and civil liberties.

Xi Jinping can claim his model preserves order while giving prosperity. And now he is exporting it abroad through Belt and Road Initiative and through reinterpreting and revising the rules in international organizations.

We have enjoyed what the great Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan describes as the “long peace” and the triumph of democracy, or what scholar Frank Fukuyama once called the “end of history”. But as Nobel laureate, Bob Dylan sang, The Times They Are-A-Changin’.

Study history and you realize that neither that long peace nor democracy is guaranteed. Study history and you know that the good guys don’t always come first.  While posted in New York in the late 1970s, I got to know the legendary BBC journalist Alastair Cooke. For half a century he read listeners a weekly Letter from America. He told me: “America is a country in which I see the most persistent idealism and the blandest of cynicism and the race is on between its vitality and its decadence.”

Say a prayer for Joe Biden.

Colin Robertson is Vice President and Senior Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa. He has served at the Canadian Embassy in Washington and as Canadian Consul General in Los Angeles. Adapted from the 14th annual Canada-US Law Institute Distinguished Lecture at Western University, London Ontario.