Another gold – this one for the premiers: In Canada-U.S. relations, we need every level of government ready to play

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Globe and Mail  Monday, Mar. 08, 2010

The Vancouver Olympics and the hockey rivalry between Canada and the United States was the centre of attention in recent weeks. But off the ice, and mostly out of sight, we achieved a joint gold when premiers met with governors at the National Governors Association in Washington.

Their discussions on jobs and competitiveness, energy and the environment marked a new level in our engagement and underline the value and necessity for provincial involvement in management of the American relationship.

Personal relations between premiers and governors matter. Four of the last six presidents were governors. President Barack Obama served in the Illinois state legislature before his election to the U.S. Senate. Key portfolios in his cabinet are held by former governors, including Arizona’s Janet Napolitano (Homeland Security),Washington’s Gary Locke (Commerce),  Kansas’s Kathleen Sebelius (Health and Human Services), and Iowa’s Tom Vilsack (Agriculture). Vilsack  met with the premiers as did EPA Director Lisa Jackson and White House Economic Advisor, Larry Summers.

Most of our trade problems in the United States start locally: Ranchers in Montana who can’t compete with Alberta’s feedlot alley; timber lot owners in the south who want to curb Canadian lumber imports; Maine farmers who want PEI potatoes kept out of the U.S.

Propelled into Congress, these complaints turn into protectionist legislation. They take a variety of forms – country of origin labelling to outright regulations mandating “Buy America.” Traditionally, we’ve relied on our embassy to find redress through the State Department and White House and, in recent years, by taking our case to Congress.

While Quebec had an office to promote tourism, Washington was until recently off-limits to the provinces because we felt we had to speak with one voice. But the American system works on different principles. What is important is that we be heard, using multiple voices to deliver the same message.

Just as the national government developed capacity and gradually assumed responsibility for foreign policy in the half-century after Confederation, so today the provincial governments have come into their own. There is now an acknowledgment of their constitutional responsibilities, if not appreciation of their role in trade and commerce, energy and the environment. The premiers’ Washington meetings began with a dinner hosted by Ambassador Gary Doer. As Manitoba premier, Mr. Doer broke new ground in lobbying Congress on Devils Lake and reaching out to governors.

The American relationship has never been defined in classical foreign-policy terms. Resolving problems requires the involvement of different levels of government, with provinces increasingly taking the initiative.

Take the recently negotiated agreement on government procurement. At Council of the Federation meetings in Regina last August, the premiers proposed a reciprocity agreement with the states. In Washington, governors and premiers began working out the practical applications. Each of them understands the need to get more bang for their buck in an era of restraint.

All the while, they worked their case at what are now regular, regional meetings. The most vigorous of the regional associations is the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER). Driven by legislators in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Yukon, Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Alberta and now Saskatchewan, its success is based on finding practical solutions to real problems. Sustained by a permanent secretariat based in Seattle, its agenda is focused on results and it brings to the table the executive, legislators, business, labour and civil society.

Anticipating Olympic headaches at the border, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire and B.C.’s Gordon Campbell came up with the idea of the smart drivers’ licence as an alternative to the passport at the land border. PNWER ran with it and convinced Homeland Security to regulate the change. Smart drivers’ licences are now being rolled out by other provinces and border states.

States and provinces are incubators for pragmatic change. Keeping the Great Lakes waters clean and diversion-free has depended on action by the adjacent states and provinces. The Western Climate Initiative, involving four Canadian provinces and half a dozen American states, is already offering practical experience in cap and trade. So is the Pacific Coast Collaborative on green ports and smart grids, while Saskatchewan is collaborating with Montana and North Dakota on carbon sequestration.

In hockey, we need different lines. So it is with Canada-U.S. relations, where we need to use all of our elected talent playing at every level of government. Making the case with the administration on Capitol Hill and with states is a permanent campaign. It requires a thousand points of contact if we are to put the puck in the net for Canada.

Colin Robertson is a former diplomat and first head of the Advocacy Secretariat in Canada’s Washington embassy.

Sustaining our Forces

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Sustaining our armed forces after leaving Afghanistan  COLIN ROBERTSON From Monday’s Calgary Herald January 11, 2010
Once more, the Canadian government faces financial challenges. As Prime Minister Stephen
Harper said in his Boxing Day interview with CTV news, the path to the black will involve a new
era of “fiscal discipline”. Get ready, he warned us, for five frugal years in terms of government
spending.

The squeeze on government budgets obliges prioritization. The lesson of “getting government
right” in the Chretien/Martin years meant that only the allocations for health care and First Nations
remained relatively unscathed.

Health care continues to be the elephant in the room, especially the retiring boomers put more
strain on the system that is already facing demands for pharmacare, electronic medical records
and a national child care initiative. Then there is education and teachers are a formidable lobby
group. Nor can we forget the environment — the green lobby, made more indignant by the failure
of Copenhagen. And the pressures of minority government further complicate the context for
decision-making.

In terms of positioning, the Canadian Armed Forces go into the budget battles better situated than
they were in the early 1990s when capacity was hollowed out. Canadians have connected to their
Armed Forces. The Forces are arguably our most popular public institution with a highly visible
presence through their work at home — ice storms, floods, Oka and overseas — most notably
Afghanistan. Perhaps the greatest asset of the Forces is their appeal to service and, as the DND
commercials put it — “to fight fear, to fight chaos, to fight distress.”

Yet the Forces have already become a target for budget cuts.

In a recent report, the left-leaning Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) argues that military
spending in Canada is disproportionately high — 10 per cent of government spending — and that it
sucks up money that could be used for other government programs, such as environmental
spending or foreign aid. They point to spending within NATO and argue that we now spend
slightly more than the average. They omit the fact that the U.S., with a population 10 times that of
Canada, spends 25 times as much as we do.

Nor do they acknowledge that we are obliged to provide security across five-and-a-half time
zones and that with the second largest land mass in the world, threats from space, the air and
sea will have a disproportionate impact on Canada. Would we rather have the Americans do it for
us? Serious countries invest in their defence and deterrent capacities. Collective security as well
as peacekeeping, also requires us to pull our weight.

The CPA proclaims that “the money that is spent on such missions could be used far more
effectively in development assistance and other humanitarian aid in other parts of the world.” The
authors are not alone in missing the obvious, as is illustrated in Tim Goddard’s poignant eulogy to
his daughter, the late Captain Nichola Goddard. Father and daughter were arguing over Michael
Ignatieff’s contention in his book, Empire Lite, that military force is required to permit the
reconstruction of civil society. When professor Goddard argued that education was the key to
development, Capt. Goddard replied: “You can’t do that when the bad guys run things, Dad, they
just shoot you. You have to have peace and good government in order for the rest to happen. I do
what I do so you can do what you do.”

Afghanistan has taught us many lessons including the reality that in failing states development
and diplomacy depend on security and hard power. Our Forces are remarkably versatile — we
earned a reputation as shock troops in the First World War and then peacekeepers in the Cold
War era. Today our Forces use their skills to create the conditions that allow diplomats to
negotiate a durable peace and our development program can build schools and hospitals and
train teachers and nurses. But we need to recognize that, notwithstanding our best efforts,
success ultimately depends on the people and their leaders to whom we lend a helping hand.

We’re back to the future in explaining what the Canadian Forces are about. The rediscovery of
our military heritage was overdue — we may not be a warlike nation but, when required, we are a
nation of warriors with a long and proud history that is finding a new appreciation in places like
the splendidly renovated Museums of the Military in Calgary.

Reaching out to Canadians is important. We need to understand how our Forces serve the
Canadian interest in defending Canada, as an effective partner in continental defence and as a
responsible ally with a capability to lead internationally, in part because of our interoperability with
our American neighbour.

The developments in the North are a parable for what is taking place around the world. The
maritime estate on which we claim jurisdiction is about 70 per cent of our land mass. The
changes in the ocean’s regulatory regime have changed more in the last 30 years as coastal
states extend their jurisdiction than in the last three centuries. The oceans carry 90 per cent of
global traffic including an estimated 40 per cent of Canadian trade. Our sovereignty and
prosperity depends on surveillance and security so that we know what is happening on our land
and seas and overhead in our skies.

Preserving the versatility necessary for our Armed Forces requires leadership and sustained
commitment. It will make demands on our financial resources. Are we prepared to make that
commitment?

Colin Robertson is a senior research fellow with the Calgary-based Canadian Defence & Foreign
Affairs Institute and recently retired career Canadian diplomat. On Thursday, he will deliver the
2010 Ross Ellis memorial lecture on behalf of the U of C’s Centre for Military & Strategic Studies.

The American health care debate: an unfinished lesson in politicking

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Excerpted From Policy Options November 2009
The American health care debate: an unfinished lesson in politicking

Americans, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan told me many years ago, take their politics seriously, and to suggest otherwise is not to have read American history. At its extreme the health care debate pits rich against poor, seniors against youth, and exacerbates political polarization. It is about competition, cost and coverage with echoes of the culture wars in the debate on ‘alien rights’ and abortion. It can also be funny and informative — watch, for example, Will Ferrell’s viral video with Mad Men’s Jon Hamm and other Hollywood celebs. It is politicking in the raw.

Obama has made health care his signature issue. Politically it is extraordinarily ambitious. It means taking on a sector that represents one-sixth of American GDP and interests that include the medical profession, the drug industry, insurers and seniors. Reform would change the lives of all Americans, especially the more than 133 million Americans living with chronic diseases and disabilities.

Obama aims to succeed where every president, going back to Teddy Roosevelt, has either faltered or failed.  Succeed and he will replenish his political capital and reverse his declining popularity, essential ingredients to continue his radical program of reform on climate change, education and immigration. Failure, as former President Clinton recently warned the Democratic caucus, increased the likelihood of significant setbacks in next year’s midterms with the spectre of the 1994 debacle when the Republicans won back both the House and Senate after the scuttling of the Clinton health care reforms.

With the health care campaign already saturating American airwaves, it will likely become the mother of all advocacy ad wars. According to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, during the first half of 2009, there were roughly 47,000 TV ads on health care. Their cost was nearly double what the insurance industry spent in 1993 and 1994 for the famous “Harry and Louise” ads, which helped kill ‘Hillarycare’.

Canadians’ confidence in our own health care system could suffer collateral damage as a result of the no-holds-barred fight south of the border. It could also send the wrong message to potential investors and immigrants who hitherto have rightly seen Canadian Medicare as a lure for settlement.

When I was in California as our consul-general and did talk radio, I could always count on at least one apocryphal story about a mythical person who had died from “cheap Canadian drugs.” The questioning was predictable: “What about those ‘bad’ generic drugs that you have to use?” My response was equally predictable: That we use the same generic drugs, usually imported from Ireland or India, and we buy in bulk, like the Veterans Administration. That many of the clinical trials on the drugs that we both use are done by Canada’s university research hospitals.  And that health care research is as integrated as car-making in finding the cures for whatever ails us. And did you know that the infant mortality rate in the US is significantly higher than in Canada, and that American mothers are much more likely to die in childbirth? Or that our seniors live longer?

As we witnessed over e-health in Ontario, the early communications around H1N1 immunization, and overdue remedial action on intellectual property, we have some improvements to make. Yet overall, we have good reason to be proud and confident in our system and to utilize it as an asset when we make the case for Canada to immigrants and investors.

As Canadians begin the annual migration south to Palm Springs, Scottsdale and Miami, they will inevitably face the same kind of questions that I encountered, especially as the American debate approaches what Obama hopes will be the finish line. Our snowbirds need a brief primer on the Canadian system. It should underline the basic principles – public, portable, universal and comprehensive – and address the mythology. Production of such a primer would be a useful public service of our health care profession. On the golf course, watching the ball games, over dinner and drinks – in these situations standing up for Canada makes sense.  Americans will expect it. And who knows, maybe our friends and neighbours will listen and draw some salutary lessons from real Canadian experience.

Power Play: On Afghanistan

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October 28, 2009  CTV Powerplay Interview

With the recent death of another Canadian soldier in Afghanistan, questions are being raised about the need for Canada’s military efforts in the country. The former Canadian envoy in Washington, Colin Robertson and a CTV correspondent weigh in on Canada and America’s strategy on the war.

‘We can’t just wait out our Afghan commitment’

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By Colin Robertson, Canwest News ServicesOctober 30, 2009

Last week, NATO’s defence ministers meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia decided to “broadly endorse” Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation, in his capacity as ISAF commander, for more NATO troops — 85,000 according to the International Herald Tribune. Like it or not, if collective security is still to have meaning, NATO first ministers will now share the same dilemma as U.S. President Barack Obama. Do we “double down” in a war where no one yet sees light at the end of the tunnel, mindful that domestic opinion is against sending in more troops?

Canada has earned both place and standing in Afghanistan through our commitment to collective security. Canadians, especially Quebecers, as the survey released this past weekend by the Innovative Research Group (IRG) underlines, are increasingly hesitant about putting our soldiers in harm’s way when Canada has no direct interest at stake, but we support continuing reconstruction projects, such as the Dahla dam, after the military mission ends.

The last Canadian Parliament decided that our current commitment ends in 2011. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has given no indication he is thinking differently, although in testimony before a parliamentary committee earlier this month Defence Minister Peter MacKay suggested troops would remain in a “non-combat” role to protect our development and reconstruction projects.

So are we done in Afghanistan, at least in terms of a major military commitment? Probably. But not necessarily.

What we do abroad, especially when we take the initiative, as we have demonstrated in Afghanistan, is a source of national pride and satisfaction. It also bolsters and reinforces Canadian identity. Yet for all our sensitivity and sensibility, we often fail to appreciate that our actions can also influence the decisions of others. Bruce Riedel, who headed President Obama’s transition task force on Afghanistan, spoke earlier this month at the University of Ottawa. “Americans,” he told us, “will be looking to see what you do. … What Canada does in Afghanistan will be wholly and significantly important in the debate that takes place … much more, I think, than any other country.”

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, America effectively left Afghanistan to NATO. The load fell especially on Canadians and Britons. We chose to be at the sharp end in the south based out of Kandahar. We have since taken more than our share of the load and made a significant sacrifice.

President Obama, who in the election primaries identified himself as the anti-war candidate (the war being Iraq), has since declared Afghanistan to be a “war of necessity.” His choice for command of both the American and ISAF forces, Gen. McChrystal, has made his report and, thanks to Bob Woodward, we know that McChrystal recommends we undertake a surge-like campaign designed to regain the countryside while winning the “hearts and minds” of Afghans. Giving teeth to the recommendation and balancing it against domestic skepticism, especially from Democratic leadership in Congress, is the challenge for Obama. Now, after the NATO defence ministers’ meeting, that challenge is also on the table of chanceries throughout Europe and in Ottawa. The nuance is that it is not Washington asking us directly for a further commitment, but the NATO commander who has now received the endorsement of NATO defence ministers.

Canadians by a large majority (82 per cent according to the IRG survey) continue to strongly support membership in NATO to deal with the threat of al-Qaeda and rogue states. Is this sufficient to support a commitment for more troops in an effort that could well become as long as our 29 years in Cyprus?

As Prime Minister Stephen Harper observed earlier this year “the future of NATO … is in considerable doubt.” It needs to get its act together. The inimitable Gen. Rick Hillier, who led the effort to put us in Kandahar, writes in A Soldier First that “Afghanistan has revealed that NATO has reached the stage where it is a corpse decomposing and somebody’s going to have to perform a Frankenstein-like life-giving act by breathing some lifesaving air through those rotten lips into those putrescent lungs or the alliance will be done.” As British strategist Gen. Rupert Smith observes, the time has come to decide whether NATO is a “political alliance with a military purpose or a military alliance with a political cause.” If NATO fails in Afghanistan what is its value?

The events of the coming weeks are not likely to make the decision any easier. Winter conditions, a resurgent Taliban, disillusionment and apathy will make conditions for voting even more difficult in a country that is the size of Alberta and with a population around the same as Canada. We can assume that the runoff scheduled for Nov. 7 will be characterized by continuing fraud.

There are no easy answers. Flora MacDonald, honored recently by the National Quality Institute for her work in Afghanistan, personifies the difference Canadian aid projects are making, especially to the lives of Afghan women and their children. We are doing our bit on the battlefield and then some. The rest of the alliance has to step up because development cannot happen without peace and security.

The road to success in Afghanistan now runs through NATO. Canadians have a special interest and commitment to NATO. We were present at its creation. While our commitment has not always been consistent, Canadians play a critical role in its development. As Riedel reminds us, what we decide will be closely watched in Washington and elsewhere. Hard decisions are still ahead of us before we sound the last post in Kandahar.

Colin Robertson is a Senior Research Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a former Canadian diplomat.

Canada’s biggest problem? America

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From Macleans.ca by Luiza Ch. Savage on Wednesday, October 7, 2009  Canada’s biggest problem? America From protectionist policy to border security to environmental laws, our best friend is making our lives miserable

Better late than never, says Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat in Washington. “It’s been five years since a Canadian prime minister has been out there in a formal sense,” says Robertson, a senior fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.

“It is entirely appropriate for the Prime Minister to go to Congress—he is our legislator-in-chief. If we started doing that on a consistent basis, that will give us more credibility. It opens the conversation on future engagement,” he adds.To address concerns about border security, Robertson says the heads of Canadian security agencies such as CSIS and the RCMP, and their U.S. counterparts, should jointly educate members of Congress about the deep bilateral co-operation in law enforcement and intelligence. “If you send that information to Congress, it will make it easier on border issues,” he says. Likewise, Robertson says Canadian labour should take an aggressive role in pressing top U.S. labour leaders on protectionism that hurts Canadian unions. “A third of Canadian unions are affiliates of U.S. unions. It’s brother hurting brother,” he says. “Canadians need to work the American system the way the Americans themselves use it. You have to play by American rules.”

Myers agrees. “It’s clear Canada won’t go far just by trying to encourage the U.S. to do us favours,” he says. “We have a lot of work to do to build a stronger voice among stake-holder groups like business associations and labour associations across Canada and the U.S. to say that we are in this together.”

But when it comes to direct dealings with the Obama administration, Canada has to walk a fine line between raising bilateral issues and trivializing the relationship. “Because of the U.S.’s position in the world, the President is dealing with international issues, whether it’s Afghanistan, Iran or North Korea,” Wilkins says. “Those are the primary focus. It behooves any country dealing with the U.S. to talk about the international issues before you turn your attention to wait times at the Peace Bridge.”

Robertson has much the same message. “With the Americans we tend to focus on just the little neighborhood stuff,” he complains, noting that the Canadian emphasis on bilateral irritants came to irritate Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. “She would say, ‘Here come the Canadians with their condominium issues.’ ” Robertson, for one, regrets that Harper raised the issue of hockey flights at his tête-à-tête with Obama, rather than leaving it to ministers and ambassadors. “It makes them wonder: are we dealing with a border state governor or a serious G8 nation? We tend to ratchet stuff up because we think this is what the public wants. But the public wants results. A lot of stuff the President can’t resolve.”

Meanwhile, Robertson says, the U.S. is strongly interested in the Canadian perspective and Canadian contacts on issues from Afghanistan to Pakistan to the western hemisphere. Indeed, the outgoing Canadian ambassador to Washington, Michael Wilson, has called Canada’s military role in Afghanistan the “best calling card I had” in Washington. When that military commitment winds down, it will not make the Canada-U.S. relationship any easier. “That’s going to be front and centre for the government, for Parliament, for some time, as to how we handle this in a way that doesn’t undermine the terrific goodwill that we have,” he told Maclean’s in a recent interview.

Take Advantage of the Obama effect

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Special to The Windsor Star  Colin Robertson
Monday, October 05, 2009
During last months’ meeting with President Barack Obama, his seventh since they first met in February, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that the United States is “far and away our best friend in the world.”
There are times when leaders are out of sync with popular sentiment but, as the survey conducted this past weekend by the Innovative Research Group reveals, more than half of Canadians believe that Obama’s election has been a good thing for Canada. Call it the “Obama effect.”
A close relationship with the U.S. is no longer the liability for Canadian governments that it became under president George W. Bush. More to the point — for those who want an adult relationship with our neighbour — there is now negligible political advantage in slamming the Americans during an election campaign.
As critical as the sea-change in popular attitude is the survey’s finding that, while Canadians are not seeking a closer relationship, we think it “just makes sense” to give our leadership leeway for closer co-operation on continental defence and border issues, particularly if the security and trade benefits are made clear.
The “Ottawa agenda” launched a clean energy dialogue as well as discussions on border management and international security.
It will be important to reap an early harvest of mutually beneficial gains and improvements to maintain momentum and public confidence in the process. Because in the coming months the drumbeat of protectionism on the American side is only going to get louder.
Even Obama acknowledges that American unemployment is going to reach into the double digits before the recovery begins to create new jobs.
Support for both the president and his party is dropping as white working-class voters worry about their jobs and personal debt and voice increasing doubt about Democratic policies on health care, energy and the environment, and the stimulus package.
With the 2010 mid-terms already very much on the minds of the 435 members of Congress and one-third of the Senate standing for re-election, fundraising is well underway.
Union support, both in money and organization, is vital to the Democratic majority. In return, union leadership expects support on policies, including “Buy America.”
They find a receptive audience in members like Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucin-ich, who campaigned for the presidential nomination with slogans like “it’s either Buy America or bye-bye America.”
For many, it has an almost irresistible appeal.
Recently, for example, the president slapped a 35 per cent tariff on Chinese-made tires.
China has reacted with threats to impose retaliatory measures on chicken meat and American auto products.
Yet auto products, thanks to the Auto Pact and over half a century of integrated supply chains are less “American” than “North American” in origin, design and construction.
It is estimated that before final assembly, components that go into cars and trucks criss-cross the border seven times and, for car parts in particular, many of them are made in Canada or by Magna plants in the U.S.
With almost half of our GDP dependent on international trade and supply chain management, Canadian jobs are at stake.
To prevent being side-swiped, Canadian leadership needs smart initiatives and room to manoeuvre when they are negotiating with their American counterparts. This means active co-operation and collaboration with the prov-inces, business and labour to make it an all-of-Canada effort.
The provinces have endorsed reciprocity in procurement and Stockwell Day has put a national proposal before Ron Kirk, the U.S. trade representative.
The Canadian and American chambers of commerce have already put on the table a series of progressive and practical proposals including expanding trusted shipper and traveller programs and providing 24/7 access at border crossings.
Canadian labour unions need to be integrated into the all-Canada effort, especially given the privileged access they have with their American brethren.
Over a third of Canadian unions are affiliates of the American internationals, including the United Steelworkers, who are leading the Buy America campaign. Their leader, Leo Gerard, is a Canadian who previously directed the Canadian division of the USW.
We bring to the negotiating table two indispensable assets: jobs and geography. For 35 American states we are their main market.
For more than seven million Americans, their jobs depend on trade with Canada. Parse that down by state and congressional district and include Canadian investment and we have a powerful argument on the economics and mutual benefits of continuing integration.
As for geography, as historian David Bercuson has pointed out, we are also America’s “front porch.” American national security depends on Canadian control of the sea and air approaches.
As the northern passages become more navigable, we need to demonstrate our capacity for Arctic sovereignty.
We also need to reinforce our coastal perimeter security against the new threat of terrorists and sea-borne drug traffickers and people smugglers.
Improved perimeter defence will also reinforce American confidence in Canadian capacity — a necessary prerequisite if we are to achieve progress on border issues.
Creating a shield for our shared North American perimeter was the argument for air defence co-operation in the creation of NORAD in the late-1950s.
A half-century later the argument of joint co-operation for mutual protection remains. Today, with different threats and challenges, there is a compelling case for expanding NORAD to integrate the land and sea forces of Canada Command and U.S. Northern Command.
In the news conference at the end of their meeting, Obama observed that the prime minister has been “on the job” in raising Canadian interests at every encounter. So he must and so was again last week at Pittsburgh with his G-20 counterparts.
While the president has told us he loves Canada and surveys tell us that Americans like us, in the U.S. strategic calculation we are neither top-of-mind nor a problem.
But geography and the inexorably positive force of economic integration means that when disruptions occur to the natural flow of people, goods and investment, we suffer.
Canadian leadership must take the initiative to protect and advance our interests.
In this season of election fever, it certainly gives them greater confidence to do the right thing knowing that Canadians are behind them.
Colin Robertson is a senior research fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. A former Canadian diplomat, he was part of the teams that negotiated the FTA and NAFTA and he served in New York, Los Angeles and Washington. This column first appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.

New U.S. ambassador presents credentials in Ottawa

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Oct. 2 2009 from CTV News Report

The new U.S. Ambassador says Canada could be exempted from the controversial “Buy American” policy, if provinces open up their contracts to companies south of the border.

“I look forward to participating in those discussions,” David Jacobson told reporters just after a ceremony officially welcoming him to Canada Friday.

“Hopefully we can move this forward in a way that is beneficial to both countries,” he said.

The controversial clause in the U.S. financial stimulus bill blocks foreign firms from bidding on contracts at both the state and municipal levels

Jacobson said officials are considering a proposal from International Trade Minister Stockwell Day, to strike agreements between provinces and states.

If Day’s proposal is accepted and reciprocity deals are agreed to, companies from both Canada and the U.S. would be able to bid on infrastructure projects on either side of the border.

Jacobson officially took his position as the new Ambassador to Canada, after Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean formally accepted his credentials at Rideau Hall.

Later in the day Jacobsen met briefly with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in his Langevin Block office.

U.S. President Barack Obama nominated Jacobson, a lawyer, for the position in June, and he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in September.

At a news conference on Friday morning, a smiling Jacobson said his intention is to visit every province in Canada within the next weeks.

“I think it’s very important that before I start making decisions and trying to do things, that I have a good and firm understanding of the country and of its people,” he said.

“And I’ll also tell you, just on a personal level, to see the beauty and the grandeur of the country. And that’s going to be my first priority.”

Jacobson said Canada was his first choice of post because he wants to focus on trade and energy.

He also said he was a long-time hockey fan, especially of his hometown Chicago Blackhawks.

“I will tell you, I’m old enough that I was a fan when the Blackhawks had Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita and Glenn Hall, and Frank Mahovlich played for the Maple Leafs, and Maurice Richard played for the Canadiens,” said Jacobson.

Close ties to the Oval Office

Former ambassador to Canada Jim Blanchard says Jacobson’s close ties with Obama will make him a useful ally for Ottawa in negotiating a Canadian exemption to the “Buy American” policy.

“I think David is going to do a great job, not just because he knew a lot about Canada but he’s very close to the president,” Blanchard told CTV Power Play host Tom Clark.

Jacobson has been working in the White House for several months and he and Obama share their hometown of Chicago.

Blanchard said Jacobson’s big challenge will be dealing with “nitpicking” trade issues that he says tend to be brought up by Canadians during negotiations.

“We need to elevate the relationship and deal with big issues,” he said. “When Canadians do complain about smaller things we tend to turn Canada off.”

Reporters also asked Jacobson about his knowledge of Canada’s intention to end the combat mission in Afghanistan after 2011.

“That’s an issue that’s up to the Canadian people,” he said. “As the president has made clear, what he’s concerned about is Canada’s role in 2009 and 2010, and I’ll stick with the President’s views.”

Colin Robinson, a former Canadian consul general to the U.S., told Power Play that the country has much to learn from Canada’s experience in Afghanistan.

“The U.S. should look to Canada for advice. We can bring advice to the table that the president can appreciate,” he said.

An agenda to take to Washington

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Sept. 12, 2009 National Post

Wednesday’s White House meeting between Barack Obama and Stephen Harper is unlikely to ripple the surface in Washington. Unlike the president’s February visit to Ottawa, with its breathless and blanket coverage, most Americans don’t pay much attention to relations with the northern neighbour. Not because they don’t care or we don’t matter, but because we are not a vital problem. For the most part, this serves Canadian interests – when America focuses on a problem the first instinct is often to reach for the hammer.

For Canada, we only have one neighbour and, like it or not, it is the one relationship that we have to get right. Time with the president is valuable. The first rule of preparation is to differentiate between the transactional and the important and to delegate as much of the transactional – the small irritants and stocktaking in the bilateral relationship – to the cabinet and ambassadors for resolution. The second rule is to offer constructive solutions on international issues where America bears the burden of global primacy. Continue reading