Ottawa needs a permanent pro-Canada campaign in Washington

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May 11, 2009 National Post

When Barack Obama looks out the window from the White House, chances are he sees the swing and play set for Malia and Sasha, just one of the changes made by the new residents at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

But will he realize that the tubing on the playset is made in Winkler, Manitoba?  Or that the blackberry, that he can’t live without, is a product of Waterloo, Ontario? Or that ‘The Beast’ – his black, armour-plated limousine also has parts manufactured in Canada?

Probably not.

The good news from a Canadian perspective is that President Obama likes us. When he proclaimed at the February 19 media conference on Parliament Hill that “I love this country. We could not have a better friend and ally,” he was also echoing American sentiment. Canada consistently ranks first in Gallup’s annual survey of foreign countries and, in their February survey, on the eve of the president’s visit, nine in ten Americans said they view Canadians favorably.

The bad news is that, notwithstanding the President’s ‘love’ and American affection, since 9-11 Canada may be ‘friendly’ but it is also ‘foreign’ and recent comments by Americans, including those who should know better, remind us that we still need to bust the myth on the 9-11 terrorists and increase their confidence in Canadian reliability, especially on homeland security. We also need to educate Americans (as well as Canadians) on the benefits of the mutually beneficial economic partnership that we have worked hard to achieve. It is at risk of erosion because of the hunkering down and ‘begger-thy-neighbourism’ caused by the global economic crisis. We are ‘caught up’, says the Export Development Corporation in a ‘global downdraft’, warning that our exports will decline by a fifth this year. No province or industry will be spared.

American ranchers and hog farmers have long pressed for country of origin labeling on meat products as a means to keep out Canadian competition. Even though the law allows producers a variety of options including labeling them as “product of the United States and Canada”, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has encouraged them to buy stock born and bred in America. Trade Minister Stockwell Day is taking the issue to the WTO but the process will be slow and the experience with Chinese melamine means country labeling is now defended, and enjoys popular support, as a health and safety issue.

We should begin to aggressively market Canadian products as premium brands, and, in an increasingly health conscious consumer market, make a virtue of cattle raised on the range rather than in feed lots. New Zealand has done this successfully with their lamb.

We are also seeing the return of ‘Buy America’ provisions in congressional and state legislation. The most notable example is the requirement for American-produced iron and steel and manufactured goods in products purchased as part of the stimulus package. Inserted at the behest of the ‘oil and steel’ caucus,  it is another example of the triumph of sectoral politics. And it will continue because Congressman Dennis Kucinich spoke for many when during the primary campaign he warned, “It’s Buy America or bye-bye America”. By the end of April, 362 states and municipalities had passed a ‘Buy American’ resolution pushed by United Steel Workers members and the Alliance for American Manufacturing. Their USW website even features a ‘How to present and pass a Buy America resolution’.

The president’s promise that the legislation would be in compliance with America’s international trade obligations notwithstanding, Canadian companies find themselves excluded from bidding on contracts. The murky nature around state procurement practices, even where the funding is clearly federal, permits local preferences and is not subject to NAFTA.

The nature of our interests requires a ‘permanent campaign’ in the United States to advance our interests and the continuing creation of ‘smart partnerships’ on the economy, environment, energy and security. Former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz would remind me that relationships are like gardens, “they require constant  work”. The asymmetry of our relationship requires us to be very good gardeners. It also requires us to take our case to America and to play by American rules with its emphasis on the media, lobbyists and in-your-face marketing.

In the wake of the Obama visit, a cavalcade of Canadians – Prime Minister Harper, premiers, federal and provincial ministers, and members of parliament, including Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff  – have descended on Washington to make the Canadian case. It’s a good start….

The economic crisis has created a dynamic for change that offers both opportunity and threat. The White House swing set and the president’s ‘Beast’ and blackberry illustrates the scope and depth of economic integration. The threat is a further thickening of the border and a ‘made-in-America’ regulatory framework on the environment and energy. On the border, we need to reframe the argument to a discussion about perimeter and on energy we need to quickly come up with a ‘made-in-Canada’ approach.

Act, we must. With over three quarters of our trade going to the U.S. and our prosperity dependent on trade, anything less than a successful partnership will quickly be felt across the country. That should provide us with a sense of focus, and determination, that easier times might not require. The emerging resolution to the auto industry crisis demonstrates that we can act in collaboration and in complementary fashion.

The burden of American global primacy and the asymmetry of our economic relationship means that we have to be constantly on guard for Canada and making the case for Canada. The nature of the American political system and the role of Congress means that traditional diplomacy and the reliance on the executive branch to handle our interests is insufficient and inadequate.

Playing the Americans requires a diplomacy that resembles our national sport for speed, flexibility and energy. We need to make constant line changes and use different kinds of players, depending on the situation. Propinquity and relevance means that it is very public, everyone thinks they can play, and it can occasionally can get very dirty. Always the focus must be on putting the puck in the net for Canada.