Smart partnership: building on the Obama visit

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Excerpted from Policy Options April 2009 Smart partnership: building on the Obama visit

The Founders constructed the American system on the basis of what James Madison called ‘competing interests’ and ‘public passions’. We have long recognized that traditional diplomatic practice with its ritual and protocol, relying on the State Department and, occasionally, the Executive Branch, to look out for our interests does not reflect our interdependent reality, and is inadequate to securing and expanding our interests. To advance and defend Canadian interests in a relationship that daily grows more intermestic requires a permanent campaign with a role for all, especially in a time of radical change. As the Prime Minister observed in Brampton, we will not turn the corner until the Americans fix their problems.

In recent years, responding to the need to make the case for Canada in Congress and regionally, the federal government has ramped up its advocacy efforts by increasing the number of Canadian offices in the United States from 15 to 23 and creating an advocacy secretariat within the Embassy. The framework created by the Obama visit will re-establish a pattern of regular bilateral encounters between ministers and, we hope, at least annual bilateral sessions between the prime minister and president.

These steps are right and necessary but we need to do more.  We should aim, for example, to have Canadian representation in every American state by the 2010 elections to advance our interests and to signal early warning measures that will adversely affect our trade and investment. Parliamentarians’ travel should also be widened to include district visits with their congressional counterparts. Create a ‘swat team’ to work with legislators, provincial governments, business, and our US offices to address head-on American protectionism, especially at the state and local level; this proved effective during the FTA and NAFTA negotiations.

The provinces, recognizing that their own interests require engagement, have vastly expanded their own ‘diplomacy’ through involvement through bilateral engagement as well as through active participation with regional and national conferences of governors and state legislators and in fora like the Energy Council. Alberta sets the standard with a Washington office, headed by former cabinet ministers, through a leadership role in the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWR), and initiatives like ‘Alberta on the National Mall’ in Washington.

PNWR is a public/private association with the active involvement of state and provincial executive and legislators, backed up by a robust secretariat. Its Secretariat, under the far-sighted leadership of Washington Governor, Christine Gregoire, and British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell, enabled the creation of the ‘smart drivers license’ that Homeland Security has accepted as a valid travel document for cross-border travel. As an effective model for regional cooperation,  PNWER should be examined by the Atlantic Premiers and New England Governors and in discussions around a similar organization for the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway provinces and states.

Government does not need to lead on or micro-manage everything. Industry and labor also have a responsibility for involvement. The real challenge in the current situation will be for Government(s) to resist the temptation to over-regulate, and thus retard, the return to the natural play of the market economy. In the case of Canada and the United States, it is estimated that 40% of cross-border transactions are intra-company. In times of economic contraction and a ‘thickening’ border, these may prove to be especially vulnerable. Chambers of commerce and associations, the Business Roundtable and Canadian Council of Chief Executives play a constructive role. The Canadian American Business Council is particularly effective and we should encourage the creation of state counterparts like the Canada Arizona Business Council.

Labor is a vital part of the Democratic party coalition and wields its influence with effect as illustrated by inclusion of the ‘Buy America’ provision by the congressional iron and steel caucus in the recent stimulus package. President Obama has a regular teleconference with labour leaders. Canadian labour has excellent relationships with American labor; now might be the best time to put them to good use.  The AFL-CIO’s John Sweeney once asked me why Canadian diplomatic efforts didn’t include the Canadian Labour Congress and other unions.

Canadian labour should be able to see that its own interests are now engaged. Rising unemployment in the USA inevitably is going to lead to a steady stream of protectionist legislation from the Democratic majority, and the increasing government stake in industries like autos and banking will also give more protection-prone Congress a greater and more unpredictable say. While in most cases it won’t be aimed at Canada, as America’s principal trading partner, we will suffer collateral damage from any anti-foreign upsurge. At a minimum, Canadian labor unions should be encouraging their American counterparts to insert ‘North’ between ‘Buy’ and  ‘America’ initiatives, however misguided they may still be overall.

The focal point for Canadian advocacy is Congress and it needs to be an all-hands approach, coordinated, but recognizing that while the messages should be congruent and complementary, the voices can be different. Play the game the American way, recognizing the utility of lobbyists and lawyers, because that is the way it works. Each one of the 535 members of the House and Senate needs to be targeted, especially in their districts, because on any issue they can either be adversary or ally. We may not have money or votes but we can talk about the seven million jobs created by growing trade and investment and parse them to the district level.