Donald Tansley Lecture

Screen Shot 2017-04-26 at 12.52.48 AM


2017 Tansley Lecture

Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy

April 5, 2017

Colin Robertson


It is an honour to deliver this lecture. I thank the Johnson-Shoyama School for the invitation and those at the University of Regina who have helped me get here. A particular thanks to my friends Dale Eisler and Doug Moen for their advice and to my brother Neil who literally got me here tonight.


The Saskatchewan Mafia


I met Donald Tansley, Al Johnson and Tommy Shoyama when I first arrived in Ottawa. While I do not pretend to have known them I knew their reputations and I took their measure.


What always struck me about that generation of public servants was that this was a generation tempered by war.


Tansley served with the Regina Rifles. Neil and I would retrace their steps – characterized by valour and sacrifice –  at Juno Beach on D-Day and after. It gave them a perspective of life that guided their public service.


Nor did they suffer fools. I know this from personal experience having later served under their colleague Simon ‘Gunner’ Reisman when we negotiated the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement-


As public servants – they were never bureaucrats –  they believed in the power of ideas and in vigorous policy discussion. As Johnson would later write of their time in Saskatchewan they “dreamed no little dreams” and believed in government as a force for good.


They took this attitude to Ottawa when they migrated as members of the ‘Saskatchewan mafia’ who served the governments led by Mike Pearson and Pierre Trudeau.

Policy implantation was a piece – you had to make things work. But putting things in auto-drive was not their thing – they all sought to build a better Canada.


The disappointment of our current government’s – that of Justin Trudeau –  in the public service is not their lack of enthusiasm or loyalty but the lack of ideas and the inability to dream big dreams.


Donald Tansley, Al Johnson and Tommy Shoyama were exemplars of what public service can and should be. They set the bar for succeeding generations of public servants. It is why we continue to honour their contribution to our public life.


My interest in the USA


Like most things in life, I came to Canada-US relations through time and chance.


I am a child of the fifties, a Prairie boy who came to public service through a combination of admiration for Lester B.  ‘Mike’ Pearson’s internationalism and the stature and self-confidence that ‘helpful fixing’ gave to Canada. And public service – thanks to the example set by Tansley, Johnson and Shoyama, was both high calling and an honourable profession.


As an undergraduate I read Charles Ritchie’s The Siren Years. Ritchie, who would go on to become our ambassador to Washington during John F, Kennedy’s presidency, wrote of life in London during the Blitz. He worked with Pearson, George Vanier and Vincent Massey at our High Commission, met the King and Queen and bedded ballerinas. It convinced me that the Foreign Service was the life for me.


I was never disappointed in the Foreign Service although in later years the advent of political correctness, senseless accountability, and a government that didn’t care much for its Foreign Service, tested my endurance.


My first assignment was to the UN Bureau where I worked for Geoffrey Pearson, son of Lester Pearson. Through him I met the inimitable Charles Ritchie. I was posted to the General Assembly to the United Nations in New York where I met John Holmes, a protégé of Pearson, who by then was at the Canadian Institute of International Affairs.


Holmes was one of that generation of Canadians who helped engineer the post-war international institutions – the United Nations, the IMF, World Bank, GATT (now the WTO), and the alphabet soup of agencies including FAO, WHO, UNHCR that continue to underwrite international peace and security.


Holmes was in the process of writing a book on Canada-US relations. He remained a steadfast advocate for the rules-based, liberal international system that gave middle powers like Canada a seat, even temporarily, at the great powers table.


Holmes embodied the Pearsonian idea of ‘functionalism’ – the recognition within the international system that competence, not power, should determine membership and weight to the specialized agencies dealing with issues like food and refugees that give middle powers like Canada place and standing.


But Holmes recognized that the United States was the anchor and guardian of our rules-based, liberal international system. His advice to me was to specialize and to better understand the United States. For Canada, he told me, it would always be the United States and then the rest.


Holmes didn’t like anti-Americanism or the Canadian temptation to be smug and superior: “Stern daughter of the Voice of God” was how Dean Acheson, a former American Secretary of State, famously described this unfortunate Canadian characteristic.


Like most Canadians I plead guilty to describing myself by what we are not – Americans and I will never forget after a session of self-satisfied grousing with fellow junior diplomats in the UN delegates lounge, a Polish diplomat, older than the rest of us – he endured the  Second World War, the Nazis and then Soviet occupation – quietly observed to me: “Would you rather be us?”


There is a natural insecurity that comes from living next door to Goliath. As Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau memorably quipped to the National Press Club in Washington, “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant: no matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”


Fortunately, my childrens’ generation don’t suffer from this affliction. Instead, as the jingle from the Vancouver-Whistler Olympics put it, they want to own the podium. That’s progress of which we should be proud.


One of my mentors and our longest serving ambassador to the United States, Allan Gotlieb, reminds me that the United States is more than a country, it is a civilization.


And the rules-based liberal international order that most of us grew up under and which has preserved the peace, not imperfectly but certainly better than any other period in world history, was created by and sustained by American leadership.


Holmes believed that we had to cut the US some slack – there is always a trap door for the great powers and, as great powers go, the US used this privilege sparingly.

It was important, he argued, that we be a good and trusted neighbour to the United States because then, as he wrote in his book Life with Uncle, “we could tell them when their breath is bad,”


For me, Holmes’ Life with Uncle and Allan Gotlieb’s I’ll be with you in a minute Mr. Ambassador, remain the two best guides for active practitioners in Canada-US relations.


I kept copies on my desk when I served in Washington. Their advice helped focus my own thinking on managing Uncle Sam in the Trump Administration.


As you can see, I took Holmes’ career advice to focus on the USA. I returned to New York to work at the Consulate General for Ken Taylor – that most cool of Canadian diplomats and a true hero. I later served in Los Angeles as Consul General and then in Washington as the first head of the Advocacy Secretariat.


I was also a member of the Canadian teams that negotiated the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement and the North American Free Trade Agreement.


My travels have taken me to every state in the Union.


On Canada-US relations, I reckon I’ve done my 10 000 hours – Malcolm Gladwell’s definition of deliberate practise to become competent – but I will confess the election of Donald Trump surprised me.


The Trump Phenomenon


Donald Trump is not a typical president. According to the Washington Post, during his first 70 days in office he has made 343 false or misleading claims. As Winston Churchill once observed, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.


Mr. Trump is not an establishment Republican – he quickly dispatched Jeb Bush, little Marco and the rest. He defeated the conservative standard-bearer ‘Lying Ted’ Cruz. And while he didn’t win the popular vote he took the electoral college from ‘Crooked Hillary’.


That the Russians intervened in the US election is incontestable according to intelligence agencies, although whether he won because of their intervention is an open question.


Don’t underestimate Mr. Trump. He went into the campaign with only a 1 percent probability of winning the Republican nomination and on the day of the election was still given odds of less than one in three of becoming president.


Trump confounds not just Canadians and, if the surveys are right, most Americans and certainly the rest of the world.


I think he won because Americans wanted change from a Washington that they felt no longer worked for them. Trump appealed to this feeling of loss of control. The Wall would restore integrity to borders. The Muslim ban would keep out migrants and terrorists. As master of the Art of the Deal he’d restore ‘Made in America’ and keep out foreign goods. And he’d drain the swamp in Washington.


As one journalist put it Trump’s supporters took him seriously but not literally while the elite took him literally but not seriously.


Trump’s messaging – including his early hour tweets – continue to be a simple, persuasive and appealing: ‘Make America Great Again…America First…Buy American…Hire American’.


As he said in his Inaugural Address, “the forgotten men and women in America” are “forgotten no longer…Everyone is listening to you now.” Donald Trump the tribune of the people.


Some of the messaging– the appeal to protectionism and nativism –  accounts for the surprising Brexit vote and is now at play in the forthcoming French and German elections.


Is Canada immune from these frustrations? By this I mean

the sense that the system isn’t fair and that the system has created advantages for some, the lack of trust in our institutions, the divide between those who have and those who don’t, and the sense that our kids will be worse off than we are.


I don’t think so.


I think that the conundrum around fairness and inequality – not climate, not terrorism – is the really big public policy challenge for our time.


Dealing with President Trump


We need to take President Trump seriously and, as we are learning, often literally.


With three-quarters of Canada’s exports headed to the USA this is our key market. We cannot change our geography, nor would we want to.


We enjoy preferred access to United States. Now we are going to have to negotiate to preserve that access.

Our prosperity and security depends on it.


Canadian policy will require care, circumspection and engagement. But above all engagement.


As we go into trade negotiations with the Trump administration and Congress, active engagement by Canadians, armed with a clear sense of our national objectives, is crucial to success.


This means all hands-on deck and a game-plan supported by all levels of government.


This being Canada, this also means achieving consensus, not unanimity. To remind ourselves, we fought an election around free trade in 1988. Only three provinces – Quebec, Alberta and Manitoba -gave the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney a majority of their votes.


But free trade worked for Canada. It resulted not just in prosperity but an attitudinal shift on the part of Canadians.


Where once we wondered about our capacity to compete internationally, we now are confident that we can truly own the podium.


I am aware of the controversy around the Global Transportation Hub, but the concept of inland ports with global reach is exactly what Saskatchewan and Canada should be doing.


Where once premiers were divided about the merits of free trade, today every premier, regardless of political stripe, is out on the international circuit promoting trade. Premier Wall is in Washington this week engaged in developing new relationships and building on existing ones. His overriding message is about the vitality and mutual benefits of our trading relationship.


NAFTA worked well


Although it is not appreciated in the United States, NAFTA worked for Americans as well as Canadians. The NAFTA, which improved the FTA and brought in Mexico, helped spark a decade-long economic advance in all three nations.


Some facts gathered by the Council on Foreign Relations that are not generally known or appreciated by Americans:


  • S. trade with its North American neighbors has more than tripled, growing more rapidly than U.S. trade with the rest of the world.
  • Research from the Peterson Institute concluded that the nearly two hundred thousand export-related jobs created annually by the pact pay 15 to 20 percent more on average than the jobs that were lost.
  • Canada and Mexico are the two largest destinations for U.S. exports, accounting for more than a third of the total.
  • Some fourteen million jobs rely on trade with Canada and Mexico – nine million with Canada alone according to a study conducted for the Canadian Embassy. Canadian companies operating in the U.S. directly employ 500,000


These facts need to be underlined to our American friends again and again in the coming months.


A word about Mexico: Mexico is now Canada’s third largest trading partner and our entrée to the Americas. While Canada and Mexico will pursue their own interests in these negotiations, as sovereign countries do, we need to keep in close contact because divide and conquer is integral to Mr. Trump’s ‘Art of the Deal’.


Getting Ready: All Hands on Deck


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet are doing an effective job of outreach to the Trump Administration, Congress and now into the states, especially those states that voted for Mr. Trump.


In a speech before the election Justin Trudeau remarked that “a former Prime Minister – and not the one you think – once said to me that the PM has three big responsibilities:

  • Grow the economy;
  • Unify the country; and
  • Successfully manage our relationship with the United States.”

For our American cousins, said Trudeau, the relationship is consequential. For us, “it has often been definitional.


The advice on priorities came from Brian Mulroney, the prime minister who best understands the Canada-US dynamic. As Mr. Mulroney, whom Mr. Trudeau has smartly enlisted in the outreach to the Trump team, observed:


“The golden rule of Canada-US relations is very simple. We can disagree without being disagreeable. The Americans are very important to us. We know they are, notwithstanding the differences, our best ally, our closest neighbour, our biggest customer. “


Mulroney, speaking at the time in Washington at a tribute to Ronald Reagan, went on to add, “There is also 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.”


Trudeau is also practicing well what former US Ambassador Gordon Giffin called the Goldilock’s rule of Canada-US relations: Don’t let the relationship get too close – we Canadians like some distance. But don’t let it get too cold, either.


I think Mr. Trudeau has found the right temperature and created the right team for our negotiations. Putting Chrystia Freeland, who brought home both country of origin labelling and the Canada-Europe agreement, as both Foreign Minister and minister responsible for trade with the USA, is brilliant.


Having former General Andrew Leslie as parliamentary secretary is also very smart. He knows personally Generals McMaster (National Security Advisor), Mattis (Secretary of Defence), and Kelly (Homeland Security Secretary).


General Leslie joined Premier Wall recently in Iowa where they spoke to Iowa legislators and met with Governor Terry Branstead (whom Mr. Trump has nominated as US ambassador to China).


This kind of strategic federal-provincial collaboration that Canadians want to see.


Prime Minister Trudeau was in Houstpn recently  –  he told an American energy executive audience that pipelines and action on climate were entirely compatible – he was joined by Albert Premier Rachel Notley. He also warned, to the applause of his American audience, that a border adjustment tax would hurt both economies.


We have the right team in Washington.


Our ambassador, David MacNaughton, is shrewd and unflappable – the right temperament for these volatile times. He has the trust of the prime minister and, in quarterbacking the outreach to the Trump team, he has been very effective.


Our negotiating team will be headed by Steve Verheul, our Chief Negotiator for the Canada-Europe trade agreement/ He is well known to his provincial counterparts through his role as our CETA Chief Negotiator. Saskatchewan farming community will be pleased to know that he cut his negotiating teeth on agriculture. Like MacNaughton, Verheul is low-key and effective.


He will lead an experienced team, many have just come off the CETA and/or the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations.


President Trump has foolishly jettisoned the TPP – the comprehensive deal with 12 other Pacific nations, including the USA and Mexico. There is a lot in that agreement that, inevitably, will be applied to the upcoming negotiations.


Preparing and negotiating the Canada game-plan has to involve all levels of government and our most experienced hands, regardless of partisan affiliation.


The fact that Mr. Mulroney and Derek Burney, his former chief of staff who later served as ambassador to Washington (and was both my boss and one of my mentors) are attending the cabinet committee on Canada-US relations tomorrow is visible demonstration of this ‘Team Canada’ approach.


This also means the provinces and the national government working together like lips and teeth in preparations and negotiations. The model should be the Canada-Europe trade negotiations where provinces were full partners and at the negotiating table.


Of critical importance will be the premiers with their governor counterparts and provincial members with their state counterparts. If we are to make the gains we want in terms of access to procurement – and that means sales and contracts for Canadians – we need the states to be onside.


Premier Wall needs to repeat his 2010 effort when he took a delegation of premiers to Washington during the Natioanl Governors Conference and negotiated a reciprocal agreement on procurement purchasing. If Mr. Trump gets his way the US procurement plan could be worth a trillion dollars.


In the meantime, the premiers should create a standing committee of the Council of Federation and figure out what it is we want from the USA and what we are prepared to give in return for gains. They should start with softwood lumber because next month we are going to start paying through the nose for our lumber exports to the USA.


Softwood is a dispute dating to George Washington’s second term – Canada has a natural advantage in wood. Softwood lumber and its variation – ‘shakes and shingles’ – threatened to derail the negotiations that eventually led to the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement in 1988.


Forestry practises are a provincial responsibility and the premiers need to figure this one out. Until then the Americans will happily collect our dollars. Softwood lumber is also a reminder of the importance of having alternate markets than the USA.


Business has an important role.


The big companies – the GEs and GMs need to step up and warn President Trump of the threat to their supply chains, especially for manufactured goods –  from soup to computers to trains, planes and automobiles. Supply chains work for North Americans.


We need to apply the people-to-people relationships, especially when the prevailing policy is ‘America First’ and because, as President Trump declared in his Inaugural Speech, “We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and Hire American.”


Plus ça change


The congressional hearings that will begin shortly will generate a lot of heat and noise. Much of it will be aimed at Mexico but Canada will also come in for its share of criticism.


Canadians should not panic. It’s a useful venting session and it will give our negotiators a better sense of what will be on the American agenda when they sit down later this year to open up the now 23 year-old NAFTA.


Some perspective:


“I have recently talked quite a lot to Americans about how they perceive, or misperceive, Canada-U.S. trade. I have called their misperceptions the seven deadly myths. l listed them as follows: Canada is not the American’s biggest trading partner; that we try to keep our dollar low to gain an unfair trade advantage; that we have piled up huge trade surpluses; that we subsidize trade and the Americans don’t; that public sector ownership automatically equals subsidy; that we are not the biggest energy supplier to the United States; and that a free trade agreement would benefit only Canada and not the U.S”


Those words aren’t mine but those of Allan Gotlieb, our longest serving ambassador to the USA in a speech he delivered almost in 1987 -thirty years ago – to Toronto’s Empire Club.


As the French say Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


Main Messages to Americans


My mother used to tell me that on an exam the key is to answer the question asked, not what I’d like to tell them. It is a lesson that has taken me years to learn. So how do we manage Mr. Trump?


How many of you have travelled to the USA in the last year or plan on travelling in the next year?


We start with three main messages to Americans:

  • First: We are a reliable ally and security partner. In the USA, security trumps everything else so start every conversation reminding Americans that we have their back.
  • Second: We are a fair and trusted trading partner. Canada is the main market for 35 states and the second market for the rest. US trade with Canada generates 9 million jobs. It’s more than trade, it’s ‘making things together’ through supply chains to our mutual advantage. And one of my favourite factoids: The average Canadian eats $629 worth of US agri-food products annually. The average American spent $69 on Canadian agri-food products.
  • Third: Canada is a secure, stable and reliable source of energy. It lights up Broadway, keeps the cable cars going in San Francisco and powers the Mall of America in Minnesota and it fuels American manufacturing. With $2 billion dollars in trade daily, Canada has a slight surplus because we provide 40 percent of US energy imports. Otherwise, they enjoy the surplus.


Rules of the Road


Let me now give you ten rules of the road that we Canadians need to think about in managing Mr. Trump and the US relationship.


  1. What is our ’Ask’? What will we ’Give’? Know our Facts.


Messaging must be blunt and on point. And get to the point. It is not a level playing field. We only have a better than even chance when we are playing on ice.


  1. We need to get our act together within governments, with business, labour, and civil society.


The Americans will exploit our differences to our cost as we are learning, once again, on softwood lumber where they will happily collect their import levy until we get our own act together.


We have a good brand but we need to develop it and use it more strategically. Americans like us more than we like them. As Margaret Atwood famously observed, when Americans look north they look into a mirror and see a reflection of themselves. There are always more Americans who think like Canadians than there are Canadians.


Canadians, of course, too often define themselves by what we are not – Americans. It’s an insecurity we have to get over.




Americans don’t mind differences but they don’t like being blind-sided especially on security issues like ballistic missile defence or Iraq. And linkage between issues is tricky and rarely works to our advantage.


  1. Relationships are everything. We would never have got the Canada-US FTA but for Brian Mulroney’s friendship with Ronald Reagan.


Our networks need a thousand points of contact. I applaud Saskatchewan legislators John Nilson and Wayne Elhard for their continuous and constructive efforts with their fellow state legislators including the Mid-West State Legislators, the Pacific Northwest Economic Forum and NASCO. Nilson and Elhard may have represented sat on different sides of the aisle in the legislature but when they traveled to the USA they took a Team Saskatchewan and Team Canada approach. Nilson and Elhard set the bar for their successors in the Legislature.


Make it a US issue and identify US allies. This is how we’ve gotten around various ‘Buy America’ restrictions. Recently, for example, the US acted against aluminium imports. The target was China but, as is often the case wwith US protectionism, we got sideswiped.


We make aluminum in Quebec. The workers are members of the United Steelworkers Union. The Steelworkers have been particular advocates of Buy America. But they consider their Canadian brothers and sisters to be part of ‘America’ so we got an exemption. It helps that their president, Leo Gerard, is a Canadian. A reminder that we need to make use of the international union ties between Canada and the USA.


And play by their rules so use lobbyists and lawyers.


If at first you don’t succeed try and try again. If you still aren’t getting through change your pitch. Practice and persistence makes perfect.


Pitching is retail and a contact sport. As an icebreaker, knowledge of US college football and basketball is very useful. A good way to meet Americans: join a church … or a gun club.


  1. Ottawa does not have all the answers.


The provinces have competence and experience.


Trust the staff at our missions in the USA – the Embassy and our Consulates for their read of the local environment. They know a lot and have a superb rolodex of contacts.


  1. The Administration is our entry point but the battleground is Congress and the states. We need to devote more attention to legislators – both in Congress and in the states.


Special interests – business, labor, environmentalist, minorities represented by lawyers and lobbyists – fund legislators and drive domestic policies eg ‘Buy America’. Protectionism is as American as apple pie – a deep-rooted political response to structural problems in the U.S. economy. For legislators, who must fundraise daily, all politics is local.


  1. Beware of noise and don’t get spooked.


A lot of what we are hearing now and what we will hear in the coming weeks of congressional hearings on NAFTA is positioning. The Americans are masters at positioning and it will excite the excitable and give the Toronto Star a daily feed of dramatic headlines.


We need to differentiate between the real and the improbable.


The bogeyman out there is the border adjustment tax – a real threat because it is endorsed by House Speaker Paul Ryan.


But the Americans also recognize that, as in in physics, for every action there is a reaction and if they adopt a border tax so will we and other nations. The closest parallel would be the Smoot-Hawley tariffs that contributed mightily to the Great Depression. No one wants to go down that road.


Most congressional legislation fails but we tend to behave like Chicken Little every time we see something we don’t like.


Again, their system is different from ours with checks and balances and separation of power.


  1. Go for Gold.


We are better than we think we are but there is a Canadian tendency to think about compromise from the outset – a natural reflection of our national character that has had to come to terms with geography and climate.


But compromising before we sit down is a mistake with the Americans. We should not out-negotiate ourselves beforehand. In other words, ask for what we really want rather than what we think they will give us. Nor should we ever expect gratitude on what we think we did for them.


This is not a problem for the USA. Business is business and the business of America is business.


  1. It’s a permanent campaign that needs all hands on deck – all levels of government, business, labor and civil society and ordinary Canadians who have American friends and family and who spend time in the USA.


Further Reading


Former US Ambassador David Jacobson used to say “Canadians think they know everything about Americans and Americans think they know all they need to know about Canadians.” We are, Jacobson concluded, “both wrong”.


And here are some books that you might want to look at to help you learn more about our favourite neighbour.  I particularly recommend Richard Haass’ A World in Disarray. Haass was head of policy planning in the Bush Administration’s State Department and now heads the Council on Foreign Relations. And for an insight into Trump America read J D Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.


On America


I am worried about our southern neighbour but the Founding Fathers designed a Constitution to prevent another King.


While Mr. Trump and George III may share certain attributes, the Constitution with its checks and balances and separation of powers also applies to Donald Trump.

And it works.


The courts over-tuned his executive order to keep out Muslims and his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch was emphatic about the independence of the judiciary. Despite holding a majority in Congress, Obamacare remains the law of the land. And his national security team – Mr. Tillerson and Generals McMaster, Kelly, Mattis are sound. Waterboarding is not coming back.


I leave you with this observation from the greatest modern observer of the United States, Alastair Cooke.


As a boy, I listened to Alistair Cooke’s Letters from America. He delivered his fifteen minute broadcast weekly from 1946-2004, nearly sixty years to audiences around the world through the BBC. Those of you with hair my colour will remember him as the host of Masterpiece Theatre.


While posted in New York I met Cooke at the English-Speaking Union. He had recently finished his epic television series on America: A Personal History of the United States.


America in 1979 was going through a bad patch. New York City was dirty and crime was a problem.There were gas lines and Jimmy Carter told people to turn down the heat and wear cardigans. The Russians had gone into Afghanistan and I wondered about the West.


I had the impression of a nation in decline. I asked Cooke what he thought of the future of the United States. He then told me that “In America, the race is on between its decadence and its vitality, and it has lots of both’.


Cooke paused and added that one should never underestimate another American quality- its remarkable resiliency.


I think Cooke is right and to end on a hopeful note I give the last words to Winston Churchill: You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”

Comments Off on Donald Tansley Lecture

Canada-USA Relations under Justin Trudeau

Trudeau Seeks a Beyond-Keystone Reboot to Canada-U.S. Relations
Danielle Bochove Bloomberg  October 22, 2015

Climate policy seen as most likely area for substantive change
First Trudeau must make himself known on trade and ISIS

“It’s more than Keystone,” could well be Justin Trudeau’s mantra on managing Canada’s vital relationship with the U.S.

Even before formally taking office, Prime Minister-elect Trudeau is racing to build a closer relationship with President Barack Obama. He spoke with Obama by telephone on Tuesday and stressed the need for the two countries to work more closely on environmental cooperation and to broaden a bilateral conversation that, under Stephen Harper, was dominated by the controversial pipeline. One of Trudeau’s first tasks may be to send an envoy to Washington to begin aligning positions on climate change, analysts said.

A more immediately amicable relationship could serve multiple objectives for Trudeau: delivering quickly on a key pledge to shore up the country’s international reputation by establishing a common front with the U.S. ahead of climate change negotiations in Paris, and managing the rejection by Obama of the Keystone XL project, which may be announced soon.

“One of the things that has been a challenge within the relationship between Canada and the U.S. is it has in many cases been focused on a single point of disagreement, a single pipeline,” Trudeau said after the Obama call.

Trudeau has made much over the past year of the need to build a closer and more productive cross-border relationship as part of his overall critique of Harper, whom he handily defeated in Monday night’s Canadian election. He promised to end the “hectoring” tone in the relationship and to set up a special cabinet committee “to oversee and manage” issues between the two countries.

The 43-year-old Trudeau will likely have his first official meeting with Obama at the G20 leaders’ summit in Turkey Nov. 15. There, the migrant crisis and Canada’s pledge to end its participation in the aerial portion of the campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq will be front and center. Trudeau has pledged to take in additional refugees and to increase Canada’s efforts in training local ground forces.

A day later, the new prime minister is expected to attend an Asia Pacific meeting in Manila where trade partners will want him to bring greater clarity to his government’s stand on the Trans Pacific trade partnership.

But it’s the Paris Climate Change Conference in December Trudeau has spoken most about, promising to attend with Canada’s provincial premiers. “I indicated to Mr. Obama that I felt that it was important that Canada demonstrates a level of positive engagement on the environmental file on the international stage,” Trudeau said in his first post-election press conference.

Over the past year, Trudeau’s party repeatedly blamed Harper’s aggressive and single-minded pursuit of a single cross-border energy project for a fractious relationship with the White House.

“For the past couple of years we haven’t heard of Canada in the United States except for Keystone. And in the last year, that all just seemed rather silly, quite frankly,” Stephen Blank, a long-time U.S. scholar on Canada, said in an interview.

The Canadian side of the world’s biggest trading relationship puts great emphasis on the importance of good inter-personal connections at the top. “There’s more than just structural issues involved, there’s personalities,” said Bill Graham, a former Liberal foreign and defense minister. Referring to Harper and Obama, he said: “I don’t think their relationship was in any way either warm or productive and I don’t think that was helpful to Canada.”

It is, of course, always easier for Democrats to get along with Liberals, and Republicans with Conservatives, but Trudeau seems to have taken aboard the advice of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, a Conservative, that it is the responsibility of any Canadian leader to develop a good working relationship with whoever is U.S. president.

Trudeau’s first move in that direction should be to initiate a substantive conversation with the White House on environmental policy before Paris, said Colin Robertson, a former diplomat and now vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Given the tight time line, he thinks it likely Trudeau will send a high-level emissary to Washington to begin aligning the country’s positions; senior Trudeau adviser Gerald Butts, the former President of the World Wildlife Federation-Canada, would be the obvious choice, he said.

Disagreement exists as to whether there’s time left to do much business with Obama. Blank feels any progress made on climate will be “toxic” to the next Republican-dominated House and could prove ephemeral. Others, including Christopher Sands, Director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, argue that the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1988, the last year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. “Conventional wisdom for Canadian diplomats is the last year of an administration is not a bad time to push,” Sands said.

Allan Gottlieb, who headed up Canada’s foreign service for the elder Trudeau and then served as U.S. ambassador in Washington under Mulroney, said he came to appreciate the importance of the close personal ties while watching Ronald Reagan cut through blockages at Mulroney’s urging.

For many analysts, Trudeau’s stated intent to expand North American ties, including with Mexico, and develop a continent-wide climate policy has the potential to define his government. Gottlieb is fond of quoting former French president Charles de Gaulle that “to be a great leader, you need only have one idea.” Trudeau’s father’s one great idea, Gottlieb said, was making his vision of a strong federalist nation, thrust upon him by the potential break-up of Canada, a cornerstone of his international relations.

“It’s the times that give the opportunity for greatness to arise,” he said. While it remains to be seen if Justin Trudeau’s “one idea” will emanate from his embrace of environmental concerns, “it would be a great mistake to underestimate him.”

Comments Off on Canada-USA Relations under Justin Trudeau

Globe and Mail Debate on Canada-US Relations


Read and vote: Have Canada-U.S. relations hit a low point?

Contributed to The Globe and Mail

Friday, Feb. 27 2015, 12:21 PM EST

Four former Canadian diplomats in the U.S. weigh in on the state of affairs between Canada and the United States

The Debate

Have relations between the governments of Canada and the United States ever been this unfriendly? If so, is the chilling of relations Ottawa’s or Washington’s fault? This became a heated topic of diplomatic debate after Allan Gotlieb, Canada’s former ambassador to the United States, declared in an interview this week that “I think the relationship is as cool as I ever remember.” Given that the 86-year-old ambassador’s career spans six decades, this suggests that the Harper and Obama administrations have damaged a historically strong relationship. We’ve assembled a group of diplomatic experts, including Mr. Gotleib, to debate the implications; vote for the one you most agree with.

The Debaters

Debate contributor
Michael KerginAmbassador to the U.S. from 2000-2005
Crisis in communications at the heart of poor relations
Debate contributor
Derek BurneyAmbassador to the U.S. from 1989-1993
Blame the White House for poor relations
Debate contributor
Colin RobertsonFormer Canadian diplomat in the United States
It’s up to Canada to build and maintain the relationship
Debate contributor
Allan GotliebAmbassador to the U.S. from 1981 to 1989
A ‘striking lack of sensitivity’ by the Obama administration

The Discussion

Debate contributor

Michael Kergin : Stability in Canada and U.S. relations are often about contact and communication – at the highest level.

Sure, foreign relations, as Talleyrand famously said, are based on interests, not friendships. But interests must be furthered by access achieved through communication and dialogue. Our leaders don’t need to be friends. But they do need to talk, and regularly.

When the Prime Minister and President can easily pick up the phone misunderstandings can be cleared, bureaucrats energized and collaboration constructed in confronting common challenges. After all, which President, during this time of terrorism, would not have a moment for the leader of the country which shares the longest border with his country, or the trading partner which provides his largest export market?.

Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan had their differences over acid rain; Jean Chrétien and Bill Clinton over Alaska’s poaching Pacific Salmon and Helms Burton regarding the extraterritorial application of U.S. law; as did Mr. Chrétien and George W. Bush on softwood lumber and the overly protracted closing of the U.S. border to Canadian beef from the BSE scare.

Yet, even when Mr. Chrétien refused to join the coalition of the willing in Iraq, the phone lines stayed open. (The leaders did have serious issues to discuss, such as Canadian troops, replacing American forces, battling the Taliban). Sometimes the tone of their conversations became a touch testy, but they did talk.

Now, however, our two countries seem to be in an almost unprecedented situation of non communication at the level of their leaders. Aside from the occasional”pull asides” (diplo-speak for brief casual encounters at multilateral leaders’ meetings), there is little evidence of Prime Minister Stephen Harper or President Barack Obama speaking directly with each other.

A recent dramatic example was the recent postponement of a scheduled North American Summit meeting to be held in Canada by the Prime Minister. Reneging on hosting the President of the United States must be a first in the Canada-U.S. relationship. It is singular evidence of the current crisis of communications between the two leaders.

The dean of Canada’s Ambassadors to the United States, Allan Gotlieb, speaks of”coolness” and”distance” now afflicting Canada-US relations. These are excellent diplomatic terms covering what I assess to be a breakdown in dialogue between Mr. Harper and Mr. Obama.

Without good communication that enables access at the highest level, differences can become irritants, compounding the difficulty leaders have in resolving bilateral problems, even between countries as close as Canada and the United States. The Keystone XL pipeline is emblematic of a difference which has morphed into serious irritant.

The crisis of communication between Mr Harper and Mr. Obama, which to the outsider appears personal, has exacerbated some of these differences, rendering their resolution more complicated.

The good news is that the relationship between Canada is far greater than a pipeline, a bridge, or differences on how to deal with Israel and the U.S.-Iran nuclear negotiations. And the strength of the relationship will endure well beyond any coolness and distance between Mr. Harper and Mr. Obama.

Debate contributor

Derek Burney : Alan Gotlieb is essentially correct in his assessment that relations between Canada and the US are cool.”Cool” is of course diplomatic understatement. They are more like an Ottawa winter -in the deep freeze. And a thaw will only come when there is a change of administration following the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Whether the new president is a Democrat or Republican, there is nowhere to go but up.

Mr. Gotlieb is also correct that we should not blame Canada. The fault lies with the White House, its indifference towards the interests of its key allies and neighbors, and its toxic relationship with Congress, which has caught Canada in the down draft on many issues, including the Keystone XL pipeline or our attempts to forge a common climate change strategy for North America. Mr. Obama has only spent nine hours in Canada during his six years in office.

But we are not alone. Our Mexican friends are deeply frustrated with Washington on immigration and the management of their border. America’s European and Asian allies have been wringing their hands in despair over Washington’s lack of leadership as they contend with Vladimir Putin’s”New Russia,” the worsening crisis in Ukraine, and China’s rise and assertions of territorial sovereignty in the South and East China Sea.

Benign neglect is one thing, as is indifference but, when the actions of the Administration are punitive to Canadian interests without cause, that is malign arrogance unworthy of a neighbour and ally‎.

Debate contributor

Colin Robertson : In the conduct of Canada-US relations, Allan Gotlieb is the Obi-Wan Kenobi. Mr. Gotlieb, who turns 87 on Saturday, transformed Canadian diplomatic practice toward the U.S. in the wake of the Carter administration’s failure to ratify the East Coast Fisheries Agreement.

Rather than get mad, Mr. Gotlieb got smart. He ramped up our congressional relations efforts in Washington, recognizing that we could not count on the executive branch to deliver for us. Given our interests, we would have to do it ourselves and learn to play by Washington rules: drawing on lobbyists and lawyers to advance our interests. With the ambassador as quarterback we’d use all our assets, including our consulate network in the U.S., recognizing U.S. speaker Tip O’Neill’s dictum that”all politics is local.”

Junior officers sent to our consulates now included congressional relations in their portfolio. I was one of those young officers, going to New York City and serving under Ken Taylor (whose heroism in Tehran made him a U.S. celebrity that Mr. Taylor subsequently used to advance our interests).

As our ambassador in Washington from 1981-89, Allan and his wife, Sondra, revolutionized how we did business. Mr. Gotlieb’s lessons are contained in I’ll Be With You in a Minute, Mr. Ambassador. I kept a copy on my desk when posted to Washington to head the new Advocacy Secretariat in 2004.

At its heart, the Gotlieb approach is activist problem-solving. First, you need to understand the United States. It’s more than a country – it’s a civilization. Second, advancing our interests means engagement at every level.

The Gotlieb approach uses all our tools – political, defence and security, commercial-economic and cultural. Management of efforts is less by control, than co-ordination, mindful that the complexity of the relationship means it is like a chess game conducted on various levels: international issues of peace, security and economics; national issues of border, trade, energy and the environment; and regional and local issues involving the provinces and states and cities.

The bumps today are at the national level and responsibility is shared.

Stephen Harper’s relationship with Barack Obama is correct, but they do not appear to be confidants. Brian Mulroney argued that there is no more important relationship for Canadian prime ministers than that with the U.S. president.

Mr. Harper made the Keystone XL permit our overriding objective, seemingly on a take it or leave it basis. Unfortunately, of modern presidents, Barack Obama appears to have the least appreciation of the strategic importance of Canada to the U.S. He has not put the necessary effort into the neighbourhood, including Mexico, that it deserves. But as Alan Gotlieb understood and practised, like it or not, the initiative (in this case, action on climate) must come from Canada.

Debate contributor

Allan Gotlieb : The Canada-U.S. relationship in the Obama era is different from what it was in the past. In earlier years, strains in the relationship arose as a result of Canadian policies or positions that the U.S. challenged or opposed as contrary to their interests. These could be bilateral in nature (energy and investment policies under Trudeau, nuclear and defence issues under Diefenbaker) or multilateral (Lester Pearson’s criticism of U.S. bombing of Vietnam, Pierre Trudeau’s allegations of”moral equivalency” between the U.S. and USSR during the Cold War). Given the extraordinary size and depth of the relationship, it is not surprising that the”irritants” often gave rise to serious tensions.

But they were usually resolved, thanks to the special relationship that existed between the two countries during the postwar era. This led to such agreements as the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement, the Auto Pact, major joint undertakings in continental defence, and ambitious nation-building projects such as the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Relations between the Obama Administration and Canada have, for the most part, been temperate and calm and relatively free of new”irritants”. Canada has been strongly supportive of U.S. strategies on a global scale.

As a result, it can be said that in the Obama Era the relationship has been largely co-operative, cordial and correct. Nevertheless, something has been seriously missing that has led to a coolness and a sense of distance not characteristic of our relationship in earlier years. Notwithstanding the depth of our economic relations, the vast trade flows, the wide areas of cooperation and the management of our borders and security interests, what is missing during the Obama era is any sense that Canada occupies a special space in the foreign policy of the United States. History shows that in the time of Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan, and George Bush, Sr. there was a sensibility in the White House that the rules, as they related to the two countries, needed to be applied with particular regard to the affinity between our two nations arising from our common values.

With the possible exception of the free-trade agreement, no bilateral issue in the history of Canada-U.S. relations has exceeded in importance the building of the Keystone XL pipeline to bring Canadian oil to U.S. markets. Certainly none have ever occupied a larger place in the U.S. political process. It is remarkable that in dealing with this issue, the President has allowed the process of approval to extend over half a decade without results. It is even more remarkable that, in its various utterances, the White House has not demonstrated any recognition of the impact of their position on our historic joint energy relationship, our joint economic security interests and the uniquely integrated economic ties with the country with which they share a continent. This striking lack of sensitivity may or may not change under future Presidents. In all probability, the current state of distance in our relationship will come to be seen as anomalous. But, the implications for Canadian foreign policy are clear. In our trade and economic relations, Canada must diversify, diversify and diversify.

Comments Off on Globe and Mail Debate on Canada-US Relations

Getting the Border Deal Done: Time for a Special Envoy

From Globe and Mail January 5, 2012 ‘How to get that border deal just right’
by Allan Gotlieb and Colin Robertson

With this week’s Iowa caucuses, the presidential season begins in earnest. An American presidential campaign is splendid entertainment, but it’s also diversionary and we can’t expect much attention to our agenda. If we’re to realize the promises of the December border agreement designed to improve our economic competitiveness, we have work to do in the coming months.

The Oval Office remains the best entry point for Canadian interests. It’s the one relationship that every prime minister has to get right, and Stephen Harper has demonstrated this ability both with George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Closing on the border deal is the priority for our embassy and our network of consulates. With their technical ability to demonstrate the linkage between jobs, exports to Canada (still America’s first market) and Canadian investment for each legislative district, Ambassador Gary Doer will be the chief advocate as well as the control point for a co-ordinated outreach to Congress and state legislators.

As we learned long ago with the experience of the still-born East Coast Fisheries Agreement, we need to make our case starting with Capitol Hill. This means a thousand points of contact: legislators and their staff, and also the permanent staff of the committees, agencies and departments within the Beltway. They’re critical on regulatory issues and the all-important “interpretation” of the rules for those in the field.

Passage of the free-trade agreement was a near-run thing, and it depended on the cultivation of “white knights” such as senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Bill Bradley. We need to develop champions within Congress, and this is where Canadian ministers and legislators need to cultivate and solidify relationships, beginning with those representing the northern border states, where many of the pilots will take place.

The regional conferences of premiers and governors and provincial and state legislators are important forums. Given the deepening integration, we should aim to make a discussion of Canada-U.S. relations a standing item on the agenda of the National Governors Association. Intervention by the premiers with their governor counterparts was instrumental in securing the 2010 reciprocity agreement on procurement.

The long-term success of the deal lies as much in addressing the “tyranny of small differences” afflicting our goods, services and people as with the challenges they encounter at the border. While the deal was crafted by Barack Obama’s administration to avoid submitting implementing legislation to Congress, we would be making a mistake if we relied solely on the administration. Behind a regulation, there often stands a protectionist interest, and behind the protectionist interest stands a congressman.

Our success ratio rises in proportion to the perception that it’s both an American issue and vital to their national security, as we are currently witnessing with the Keystone XL pipeline debate. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been especially vocal in encouraging the administration to approve the pipeline.

The Chamber of Commerce and like-minded associations, including the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers, need to be encouraged to devote commensurate attention to highlighting the importance of cross-border supply-chain dynamics. So, too, with the union movement, a vital constituency in the Democratic coalition, that has also been active in support of the XL pipeline.

All of these initiatives will contribute to building the conditions for passage of the border deal. Given the immense complexity of the deal and the constraints of time and competition for time, we also recommend the appointment of special envoys. They would report directly to the President and the Prime Minister and drive its implementation during the next 12 months. The acid rain agreement wouldn’t have been achieved without the appointment of former Ontario premier Bill Davis and former transportation secretary Drew Lewis.

Such appointments would signal the priority the two leaders attach to the achievement of this deal. To represent Canada, we can think of no one possessing a better appreciation and the experience of successfully working both systems, as well as the gravitas, guile and good humour to get it done, than Brian Mulroney.

Comments Off on Getting the Border Deal Done: Time for a Special Envoy

Restoring Canada’s Foreign Service

We must restore our diplomatic core

Monday, Aug. 08, 2011 Globe and Mail


With his election victory, Stephen Harper has achieved a new place among world leaders. Admired for his political skills as the leader of an insurgent movement and then, as a prime minister who jockeyed a pair of minority governments into a majority, he’s also recognized for steering Canada’s economy through recessionary waters that are still threatening his fellow G7 leaders.

So what role will international affairs play in his government?

In several recent statements, he has told us it will be a major one. Foreign affairs/foreign relations, he said, “has become almost everything.” In a world where “change is the new constant,” he declared, “our party’s great purpose is nothing less than to prepare our nation to shoulder a bigger load, in a world that will require it of us.” Accordingly, “strength is not an option, it is a vital necessity.”

If these words signal the government’s intentions, then there must be a match between our aspirations and our abilities to achieve them. For too long, our capacity to be a significant player on the international stage has failed to match our rhetoric. The Prime Minister’s declarations of intent have credibility, coming, as they do, from a government that has consistently supported the strengthening of our military capabilities. The Canada First Defence Strategy, including the new command structure for the Canadian Forces, has proved itself both at home and away – in Libya, Afghanistan and in the reconstruction of Haiti.

All the more welcoming, therefore, is Mr. Harper’s recent statement that “re-equipping the military is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to making Canada a meaningful contributor in the world.” The implications of this for Canadian foreign policy are profound. Mr. Harper seems to foresee a highly active foreign policy, and a very independent one. “We also have a purpose,” he said. “And that purpose is no longer just to go along and get along with everyone else’s agenda.”

Implicit in Mr. Harper’s statements is a recognition that Canada’s national interests are at the core of our foreign policy and have never been more demanding than they are today. To do so requires rebuilding our diplomatic resources to the stature they had in the postwar era when it was widely acknowledged that the impact of Canada’s contributions far exceeded its size.

The negotiation of a new accord with the United States to reverse the hardening of our border, the need to protect the access of our energy exports to American markets, the need to create new markets for our oil sands, the negotiation of a free-trade deal with the European Union and India, the strengthening of our relations with China, the protection of our interests in the Arctic – all are of the highest importance for our national interest and all deserving of the most talented of our human resources.

“To shoulder a bigger load” will necessitate a foreign service at the very top of its game. If the 1990s were a decade of darkness for the Canadian Forces, both the ’90s and the noughts were equally so for the foreign service. Process took priority over policy-making. Public diplomacy, an area Canada pioneered, virtually disappeared.

Meantime, there’s been a revolution in the way information is acquired and transcribed. Far from the information revolution shrinking the role of the ambassador, it’s enhancing it. Out of the vortex of information and communication, the ambassador emerges as chief interpreter of data and events, chief analyst, chief intelligence officer, chief advocate and chief adviser, the central player in a field with an infinite number of actors, pursuing conflicting goals and agendas.

In this age of the Internet and WikiLeaks, the role of diplomacy needs to be assessed and understood. The Prime Minister should commission a task force on the foreign service, as he did for Afghanistan. It’s been more than 30 years since the McDougall Commission looked at our diplomats. There will be no new golden age of Canadian foreign policy unless we invest in the human resources that, in the Prime Minister’s words, are necessary “to making Canada a meaningful contributor in the world.”

Comments Off on Restoring Canada’s Foreign Service

Will a Republican House be Good for Canada-U.S. Trade Relations?

November 9: Will a new Republican dominated congress be good for Canada, or will the emergence of the Tea Party push the U.S. to a more protectionist stance? BNN finds out from Allan Gotlieb, former Ambassador to the U.S. and Colin Robertson, vice-president, Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

Comments Off on Will a Republican House be Good for Canada-U.S. Trade Relations?

U.S. midterms and Canada: We must defend our interests

Excerpts from the Globe and Mail, November 4, 2011 by Allan Gotlieb and Colin Robertson

The U.S. Congress has undergone another sea change as a result of Tuesday’s midterm elections and the Republican wave with a Tea Party crest. What has not changed is the requirement for vigilance in defence of Canadian interests. Those interests are our economic prosperity, our need for a wider and enhanced international trading system, and an open border between our two countries.

From the standpoint of our interests, Congress is the organ of government of greatest concern to Canada. In the U.S. system of checks and balances, the three branches of government are said to be co-equal, but they’re not, by constitutional design of the Founding Fathers. Congress, not the presidency, is primus inter pares

If the mood of Americans continues to turn inward because of fatigue with foreign wars and “unreliable” allies, we can anticipate more security measures and thus a further thickening of our border. The passport requirement for Canada and U.S. travellers was a profoundly retrograde step, curbing tourism and the flow of service clubs and youth sports that created unique bonds of friendship. The Republican “Pledge to America” promises to further “secure our borders with strong enforcement of the law.”

Mythologies about 9/11 and Canada’s leaky borders persist. Sharron Angle, the Tea Party candidate who almost defeated Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, is only the latest to voice the canard that “our northern border is where the terrorists came through.” Meantime, that border continues to choke with its aging infrastructure, new rules and regulations, fees, inspections and redundancies. Our common frontier is probably the least open among any two industrialized countries anywhere, and no way to manage the world’s biggest bilateral trading relationship. A more open border between our countries needs to be a top priority.

While recognizing the advantage of divided political power in Washington, Canada should greatly intensify our efforts to find new global markets for our resources, especially energy. It should be a matter of the highest national priority to develop the policies and to create the necessary infrastructure.

Regrettably, President Barack Obama seems to lack any strategic view of Canada’s value from the standpoint of U.S. national interests. While it may be tempting, Canadian interests are too important for us to drop anchor and stay in safe harbour. Ad hocery and incrementalism will not stem decline. Open trade and borders are the proven path to jobs and mutually reinforcing growth and prosperity.

The most effective way to reverse the trend line is through bold, energetic Canadian initiatives. We should start by reminding Americans that, if they’re to trade their way out of recession, the first step is to build on our deep, integrated supply chain dynamic with their biggest market and to renew the partnership with Canada.

Comments Off on U.S. midterms and Canada: We must defend our interests

Canada must rebuild its diplomatic resources

Excerpted From Globe and Mail, Wednesday, October 13, 2010 by Allan Gotlieb and Colin Robertson

Canada’s failed pursuit of a seat on the world’s most powerful body – the United Nations Security Council – puts the spotlight on our performance beyond our borders, the strength of which depends on the quality of our diplomacy and the skills of our diplomats….

The ineffectiveness of our foreign ministry has become a cliché in Ottawa’s contemporary political culture. The government has cut the operational resources of Foreign Affairs, especially representational funding – forgetting that an embassy without an entertainment budget is like a frigate without fuel. Diplomats are no longer authorized to talk publicly without the prior consent of the PMO. These remote commissars undermine the very purpose of our ambassadors – to publicly advance the national interest.

While Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made some excellent diplomatic appointments, his government is silent as to why a country needs an effective foreign service. Yet now, more than ever, we need skilled diplomats and a strong foreign ministry.

The international order of the 21st century is increasingly a world of decentralized sovereign entities and fragmentation among states. There is a deepening asymmetry between the structure of this order, with its 190 or so sovereign units, and the overwhelming transnational nature of the threats we face.

It is also a world of fracturing power within states. The explosion in the number of players – competing agencies in ever-expanding governments, narrow special interests, global activists, environmental crusaders, powerful multinationals, muscular NGOs, deep-pocketed lobbyists, legions of bloggers and self-declared experts – give rise to a single imperative: the need for interpretation.

The movements toward globalization and fragmentation place an enormous premium on the need for envoys of the highest calibre to fulfill four core functions. The first is as our chief intelligence officer in their country of accreditation. Second, the ambassador is the chief lobbyist for our national interests and chief promoter of our industry, trade and economic prosperity.

The ambassador is also our chief advocate, a role that goes in two directions. All input back home tends to come from domestic pressures, including special interests. Yet, decision-makers need to understand foreign political realities from their on-site envoy. Lack of knowledge, wrong information or mistaken beliefs can cause problems to escalate and endanger the national interest…

Successful engagement will oblige significant reinvestment in our diplomatic capacity at home, a strengthening of our network of missions abroad and a revitalized foreign ministry as the focal point for co-ordination. The rebuilding of our diplomatic resources will not be easily or quickly achieved. But if we don’t make the commitment, we’ll need to lower expectations about our role in the world.

For reaction to this piece see Brian Stewart on the CBC website and Barbara Yaffe in the Vancouver Sun

Comments Off on Canada must rebuild its diplomatic resources

‘Indispensable Ally’? Better to be a ‘Reliable Partner’ published in The Mark

July 12, 2010

If Canada wants effective foreign policy, we need a new approach and a strategic relationship with the United States.

“The ultimate narrative of the new multipolar era will not be written for decades. Will the U.S. decline in the way of the British Empire? Will China’s rise burn out in the way of Japan? Will they stand above the rest in a functional dual-superpower system? We simply don’t know, which is why Canada needs to hedge its bet on the U.S. and make new friends elsewhere, while deepening our relationship with our best friend.” – from “United States: The Burning Platform,” Open Canada: A Global Positioning Strategy for a Networked Age

Writing a foreign policy review in a foreign ministry is like a visit from Harry Potter’s dementors: the energy is sucked out of the system. It inevitably becomes an exercise in corporate justification and an effort to rationalize the current state of affairs, rather than innovate.

Written by a committee and subject to a thousand compromises, the tone is aspirational and the language is couched in the conditional and the subjunctive. Smart officers soon learn that any really good idea drowns in a sea of banality, political correctness, and faddism. The gestation period is twice as long as anticipated. “Experts” are called in for a re-write. No one is happy with the final product. In content and context, it too often resembles an orphan turd floating at the top of the toilet bowl. Quickly flushed into oblivion by the regretful commissioning minister or his successor, the review finds an after-life in the dissecting chambers of academe. They ascribe too much value to it, clamour for more, and thus begins a new cycle that leads to … another foreign policy review.

The Open Canada report released by the Canadian International Council is none of these things, and should enjoy a much different fate. Indeed, it obviates the need for a foreign policy review because the foreign ministry, and the 23 other ministries that have a hand in international policy development and delivery, can react to these fresh and provocative ideas.

Principal author Edward Greenspon is a stylist whose prose is easy to digest. The group of Generation Xers that co-signed the document are not the usual suspects, rather a shrewd selection of those just coming into their own. In a clever, pragmatic solution to the challenge of consensus, the bar for signature was sensible – co-signers only had to concur with 80% of the final report. The Great and the Good – including the practicing doyen of Canada-U.S. relations, Allan Gotlieb – were consulted and appropriately referenced in the report’s acknowledgements. Prime ministers, of course, would do well to remember Gotlieb’s advice on foreign policy reviews: “Don’t study foreign policy. Conduct it. And justify it when you stand in Parliament and when your party goes to the polls.”

This document provides a lot to chew on. The game-changers that formed this piece sound the alarm starting with the potential impact of the United States decline on Canada. Their prescriptions are forthright. Open Canada reminds Canadians that moralism is not a policy and that a country that speaks loudly and carries a little stick has no weight. As such, we need to plan and make it a Team Canada effort because “the line between domestic and international has blurred to the point of being almost meaningless.” Further, once a plan is made, Canada must stick to it, since we are seen by many, particularly Latin America and Africa, as fair-weather friends.

The recommendations regarding Canada’s relations to the United States are sensible; while Open Canada favours a “‘big bang”’ approach that would create a customs union with the United States, it recognizes that that road will require a series of “little bangs” to build confidence. It draws from a lot of prevailing wisdom and past practice. For example, Open Canada underlines the value of building consensus at the grass roots, which was the premise behind the Canada-United States Smart Border Accord. It suggests a joint approach to border infrastructure and sharing common space at gateways, drawing on the work of the Chamber of Commerce and a very good study by former Ambassador Michael Kergin and my former Embassy colleague, Birgit Matthiesen, who is now with the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

Promoting labour mobility will be easier when the guilds – doctors and lawyers and other professions – adopt joint recognition of standards. Standards today are like the tariffs of yesterday – an impediment to the flow of goods and services. The Government of Canada should unilaterally declare mutual recognition of new standards, especially as they relate to health and safety.

While I like the sound of “indispensable ally,” it has about it the whiff of Arthur Meighen’s too-sure “ready, aye ready” – an earlier misadventure, led by the British, in the Near East that Canada did well to avoid. Every generation or so, America goes into crusader mode, as John Quincy Adams warned long ago, “in search of monsters to destroy.” Vietnam and Iraq are salutary reminders that the Canadian penchant for sober second thought is a useful habit. “Reliable partner” would be a more appropriate moniker for Canada in dealings with the U.S., since Americans put a higher priority on national security while our principal interest is in market access and a border that gives easy access to people and encourages the flow of goods.

Life with Uncle Sam can be frustrating. Too often we play our hand too defensively. Complaints and whining usually guarantee a series of increasingly irrelevant diplomatic notes that wind up in the dead letter box at Foggy Bottom.

There are really only three things to know when dealing with the Americans:

First, situate your ask into their agenda. America’s Founding Fathers created a system of brokerage politics with checks and balances designed to frustrate radical change. For that reason, Canada should frame its issues as part of an American debate. When it becomes “Canada versus the U.S.”, the only place we can be reasonably certain of victory is on the hockey rink. Our success rate rises if it is championed by American allies. Never forget that, on almost any issue, there are always more Americans who think like Canadians, than there are Canadians; yet another reflection of our asymmetry.

Second, think big. Americans like big ideas, especially those that have a national security dimension. This helped us achieve both the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.

Third, be very well prepared. When America eventually puts its mind to a problem, they play hardball. As former Ambassador Frank McKenna observed in Washington, “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.”

Comments Off on ‘Indispensable Ally’? Better to be a ‘Reliable Partner’ published in The Mark