Textes d'opinion

Let’s set our cap for better relations

This is adapted from his address on June 15, 2004, to the Montreal Economic Institute

Not a day goes by in Canada without another colloquium or study on how we should deal with Uncle Sam. The great Canada-U.S. debate has replaced the great constitutional one that preoccupied us for a generation. In the light of our overwhelming dependence on U.S. markets and the traumatic border disruptions post-9/11, Canadians seem ready to agree with Warren Buffet’s advice to investors: If you put all your eggs in one basket, take good care of the basket.

But how? As a long-standing practitioner of the diplomatic arts, I’ve always believed in the ad hoc approach; lately, I’ve become a skeptic. In advanced industrialized countries, the democratic process is being driven by relentless special interest groups, championed by powerful and influential legislators. On opposite sides of an international border the pressures of special interests can produce opposite results. In democracies driven by interest groups, no politician is willing to subordinate the interests of his or her constituents to those of a foreign power. Consider the softwood lumber dispute, which has entered its third decade. As one U.S. chief executive recently said, « I’ve worked diligently on it for 31 years, and to the best of my knowledge, have accomplished absolutely nothing. »

In Washington, a foreign power is just another special interest, and not a very special one at that. It has little clout unless it can affect a legislator’s political base; it cannot participate in elections or contribute to political campaigns. A domestic interest trumps a foreign one any day. Besides, lobbying by a foreign government can create a backlash, leading to charges of interference in the domestic process. Obviously we must continue, on a case-by-case basis, to plead for the access of our goods. Recently, the Prime Minister did so twice with the President regarding Canada beef – to what effect we shall see.

Are there better ways to conduct our relationship? The answer is yes. Canada should seek to deepen NAFTA so to provide a comprehensive North American community of law and create rules applying to all aspects of the movement of people, goods and services across our border. Such a community, inspired by the European model, could lead to a full-scale customs union, a common security perimeter, common standards affecting all commerce, joint adjudicative tribunals and, in time, complete freedom of movement of people.

However, vast areas of our economy are not covered by NAFTA; those that remain are witheringly exposed to much criticized « trade remedies » – anti-dumping and countervail. Canada’s supreme goal in proposing the free-trade agreement was to eliminate such protectionist tools, as the Europeans have done in trade among themselves. We didn’t succeed.

Components of such an agreement cannot be negotiated on an ad hoc basis. Some Canadians now agree that maybe a customs union or other big deal wouldn’t be a bad idea – but it’s a waste of time. The U.S. doesn’t need to give up anything to get what it wants from us.

This ignores the fact that American relations with Canada are a vital aspect of their national security. Geopolitically, the U. S. needs no country more than Canada; historically, it has been willing to negotiate mutually advantageous agreements. Many predicted Congress would never authorize a Canada-U.S. free trade area. They were wrong.

Now the winds of protectionism are blowing strongly south of the border. Voices of protectionist senators once regarded as marginal are proclaimed by The New York Times as mainstream today. Within the Democratic Party, the export of jobs through free trade has become a patriotic cry. The prevailing U.S. mood of anti-multilateralism and its growing sense of betrayal by friends are trends that could make America turn inward in the years ahead – to the detriment of no country more than Canada.

Whoever forms Canada’s new government should move expeditiously. There’s a risk of rebuff, but to do nothing is a greater risk. Herewith, my suggestions for dealing with the special relationship that is Canada’s greatest policy challenge:

  • Move quickly to create forward momentum. Propose the appointment of special envoys to oversee progress on every issue. The two envoys would be personal representatives of the president and prime minister and report directly to them. Without high political impetus, issues get bogged down, special interests block progress, bureaucrats get distracted, positions get entrenched;
  • Bear in mind that the U.S. agenda is security. By being helpful to the U.S., with its global interests, we have a better chance of our own agenda being considered;
  • The president is the single most important player in the U.S. political system, and our leader’s personal relationship with him is potentially Canada’s greatest asset. Without a special relationship, there is no special consideration. Be at the front, not the back, of the long queue of foreign leaders seeking the presidential ear;
  • Don’t appoint a businessman to represent Canada. A CEO’s skills aren’t transferable to diplomacy. Choose a highly experienced public servant, a sociable workaholic at the top of the class;
  • Don’t make the Canadian ambassador a cabinet member. The degree to which an ambassador can gain influence in Washington depends entirely on his or her personality and skills. An ambassador has more room to manoeuvre, more chance to float trial balloons if not acting as agent of his government and principal at the same time;
  • In Washington’s deadly games, Canadian interests can be played off against each other if we speak with conflicting voices. Ottawa’s initiative to establish a federal-provincial secretariat in our Washington embassy is risky, especially if it is answerable to a dozen premiers. The ability to speak with one voice is an advantage we have over the Americans, with their system of divided powers;
  • The new Prime Minister should meet with the President as soon as possible. Brian Mulroney went to Washington within weeks of his victory – and set the stage for the most productive period in modern Canada-U.S. relations.

Allan Gotlieb était l’ambassadeur du Canada à Washington de 1981 à 1989. Il était invité par l’IEDM.

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