After Obama’s First Hundred Days: The Pursuit of the Ottawa Agenda and the Need for a Permanent Campaign

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Excerpts from CDFAI Policy Update May 10, 2009

…the new President likes us. He has invited us to sit at the table on the issues that matter – energy and environment, the border, international affairs. The problems are that his agenda means he won’t have much time for us. Nor will his ‘love’ for Canada change American insecurity about its borders or the protectionist instincts of the Democratic Congress. The plight of Detroit and the auto sector underlines the desperate decline of American manufacturing. The drop in demand for Canadian products is further threatened by a return of ‘buy America,’ wrapped in the cloak of patriotism and national security.
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.
Shortly after I’d begun my job in Washington I spoke with Gordon Giffin, former American ambassador to Canada. He, like counterparts Jim Blanchard and Paul Cellucci, recommended that I should spend my time working Capitol Hill. I related my adventures, noting some thought that I was spending too much time there. In his laconic fashion he looked at me and replied, “you can never spend too much time on Capitol Hill.” I wondered how long we’d have to keep it up. Raising an eyebrow he observed, “you never stop.”
Because that is the nature of the American system we need to embark on a permanent campaign based on smart partnerships with an ever-shifting galaxy of players using all the tools at our disposal. It is a different kind of diplomacy – with Plunkett’s Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics a better guide than Satow’s Diplomatic Practice. But it is still diplomacy.