LES RELATIONS CANADO-AMÉRICAINES: PERSPECTIVES D’ICI
vol. 36, numéro 1, 2006
The University of Western Ontario and the Royal Society of Canada recently hosted current American Ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins, and former Canadian Ambassador to the US, Allan Gotlieb, as keynote speakers for a forum of animated discussion with students, researchers and some of the country’s leading political commentators about Canada-US often contentious relations. Held at Western on January 25, 2006, the forum provided approximately 800 guests from the university community, the London area and the RSC with an opportunity to question panelists directly and hear views about how the sensitive and important relationship between our neighboring countries has been, and should be, managed. Comments Wilkins made during the forum relating to Arctic sovereignty drew rebuke from Prime Minister Stephen Harper the following day, resulting in substantial media coverage of the related issues.
Timing and topic could not have been much better, just two days after Canadian voters chose Stephen Harper as their new prime minister and the Conservatives to be their federal government. Every issue took on special significance, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, Arctic sovereignty, anti-Americanism, defence and border security, gun violence and political rhetoric.
President George Bush earlier that day had telephoned Harper and had “a very cordial and friendly conversation with him,” Wilkins said. The ambassador also congratulated Harper and said the US government looks forward to working with the newly-elected prime minister and government on a broad range of bilateral and global issues as partners on the world stage.
During the election campaign, the ambassador became front-page news when he chided Prime Minister Paul Martin and the Liberals for statements about the United States and the Bush administration. Noting during the public forum that he had no intention of becoming the next day’s headlines, Wilkins said that we spend too much time talking about “the issues that divide” rather than the “overwhelming majority of commonalities” we share.
“I know we have areas of disagreement, but I don’t believe they define our relationship. My greatest aspiration as long as I remain ambassador is to strengthen the ties that bind our two countries,” Wilkins said. “For generations, Canadians and Americans have worked together to weave those ties out of threads of respect and trust, and thanks to the work of folks like former Ambassador Gotlieb, those ties are strong.”
The forum was co-sponsored by the University of Western Ontario, Research Western, the Centre for American Studies at Western and The Royal Society of Canada. Moderator Steve Paikin, host of TVO’s weekly foreign affairs series Diplomatic Immunity and co-host of Studio 2, had a few questions, as did members of the capacity audience in Conron Hall. Panelists were: Jeffrey Simpson, Globe and Mail columnist; Andrew Cohen, formerly of The Globe and Mail, now an associate professor of journalism at Carleton University and Paul Berton, Editor-in-Chief of The London Free Press. Wilkins and Gotlieb each gave a short speech prior to fielding questions.
Allan Gotlieb, author of the book I’ll Be With You in a Minute, praised Western for establishing the Centre for American Studies 25 years ago because, he explained, the Canada-US relationship is one of the most important topics that should be studied at any university in Canada. Gotlieb expressed concerns about the “strained relationship” and observed that the defeat of Paul Martin’s government marks the third time in a half-century that a Canadian government has fallen after mismanaging Canada-US relations.
“John Diefenbaker’s Conservative government made a mess of the defence relationship. Pierre Trudeau’s last Liberal government (in which I served) made a mess of the economic relationship, and Paul Martin’s Liberal government made a mess of the whole relationship,” Gotlieb said.
In his remarks entitled “How Not to Manage Canada-US Relations in Seven Easy Lessons,” Gotlieb said Canadians do not seem to understand that the president is the most important player in the foreign and domestic political arena. “Foreign players must strive to form alliances with domestic influences in Washington, but there can be no substitute for having the White House as your ally on the domestic battleground,” Gotlieb said.
He also warned that Canadians have a hard time grasping that, in the US, “national security not only trumps all other issues, but is a class unto itself,” and that “the defence relationship is the pass key for opening doors in the White House.” There also needs to be a toning down of rhetoric. This does not mean suppressing our interests or our views, but a return on the part of both countries to a condition of greater sensitivity to each other’s concerns.
While acknowledging the importance of lobbying or advocacy, Gotlieb called for a return to dialogue at the highest level of government. “It means a return to diplomacy and the sooner, the better. I would say to Prime Minister Stephen Harper ‘the opportunity is yours’.”
Andrew Cohen, author of the book While Canada Slept about Canadian foreign policy, said his sense is that with the Conservatives in power, there will be greater emphasis on interests and less on values, a greater emphasis on resources and less on rhetoric, and more focused diplomacy.
Citing concern about making headlines, Wilkins declined to comment on the Jeffrey Simpson statement about the political price leaders of friendly countries pay for supporting the US - one example being loyal Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain, with his loss of seats in the last election. The ambassador did comment on the sagging American image in many parts of the world
“It points to the importance of public diplomacy throughout the world,” Wilkins said. “It’s a two-way street. It’s our job to advocate and articulate in an understandable manner the position of the United States and also to understand and listen to learn your concerns and report those back to the policy makers and decision makers in Washington.”
Asked about anti-Americanism in Canada, Wilkins said he has traveled across the country in the seven months here and has not seen evidence. “You tell me it exists, but I think there is a disconnect between what you might read and what I see, feel and hear,” he said.
The Bush administration remains committed to resolving the softwood lumber issue. Wilkins cited as a “sign of good faith” the US announcement last fall that it will fully comply with the NAFTA decision and recalculate the tariff, which should result in no tariff once the process is completed. “The only way to bring finality to the softwood lumber issue is a negotiated settlement; otherwise, lawsuits that are pending now and lawsuits yet to be filed will simply continue,” Wilkins said.
Making NAFTA procedures work should be at the top of the agenda for the Harper government, Gotlieb agreed. “The two counties need to appoint a special envoy to review, at the highest level, the workings of NAFTA and to not only get it back to what it should be but to move forward and deepen it, so that we don’t expend goodwill in endless conflicts between special interests,” he said.
Simpson, author of the book Star Spangled Canadians, said the use of special envoys to solve the softwood lumber dispute would be complicated by the fact that Congress will insist on its final say. Envoys were used in the past to settle the fisheries dispute, Gotlieb pointed out. “They can advance a cause, but you certainly can’t give them plenipotentiary powers to cut a deal.”
The decisions Canada made on Iraq and ballistic missile defence were disappointing, but “we move on,” Wilkins said. The US appreciates Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, where it will have 2,300 troops shortly, as well as the provision of reconstruction funds and the training of police in Iraq. The ambassador also said that renegotiation of the North American Air Defence agreement has begun.
“We have had a history of 65 years of defence cooperation in North America and NORAD has been the central feature of the architecture of Canadian foreign policy,” Gotlieb said. “Important issues are coming forward, not only in terms of traditional NORAD but maritime and land defence, if we get this right and move forward on a cooperative basis where we participate in decisions that affect our sovereignty.”
Although also anticipating a cooling of rhetoric and more direct contact between prime minister and president, Simpson said Arctic sovereignty is an aspect of the Harper foreign policy that puts Canada on a policy collision course with the US, which we have been on for a long time.
During the election campaign, the Conservatives made a number of announcements regarding Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic, including underwater sensors, the stationing of troops and the construction of three icebreakers. The concern is that as climate change widens the Northwest Passage waterway, it could become a commercially viable route from Europe to Asia.
The American position has been “very consistent on that and where I guess Canada and the US have agreed to disagree over the years,” Wilkins said. “We don’t recognize Canada’s claims to those waters as don’t most other countries. This is a situation where there is no reason to create a problem that doesn’t exist.”
Under an agreement reached between the Brian Mulroney government and the Ronald Reagan administration, a formula was approved whereby the Americans agreed to seek the consent of Canada for vessels crossing the waters of the Arctic archipelago. “Given global warming and given the possibility of the Northwest Passage becoming a major global route, it is absolutely indispensable for Canada and the US, in our joint national interests, to further an agreement to manage that and deal with the challenges, such as potential ecological damages,” Gotlieb said.
In response to gun crime in Toronto and elsewhere, American law enforcement officials are working with their Canadian counterparts in joint criminal investigations and are involved in high-tech ballistics testing and training.
Commenting on “the world’s largest trading partnership,” Wilkins said that in one year more trade goes back and forth across the Ambassador Bridge alone than the United States trades with the entire country of Japan.
“Canada’s national interest depends on good relations with the United States more than any other single country in the world for the obvious reason that we share the boundary and half of our national wealth is produced by our two-way trade,” Gotlieb said.
“We are in a unique position. Nobody can sustain more impact from their relationship than Canada, whether it’s the environment, acid rain, oil, wheat, corn or countervail. Not to have the open close dialogue type of relationship harms us more than any other country. It comes down to leadership and it comes down to the skills of leadership.”
Wilkins disagreed with Paul Berton’s statement that a significant number of Canadians and Americans believe the US is a less safe place than before 9/11. “There have been no attacks on our soil since 9/11, and the battle has been taken to other parts of the world, the enemy’s home court,” Wilkins said. “We have improved security on our borders, but when you are dealing with terrorists, you have to be right 100 percent of the time.”
Security and trade, security and travel are not mutually exclusive, the ambassador said. The United States consequently is working on an inexpensive document alternative to a passport. “We will continue to work with our friends in Canada and Mexico in ensuring a smooth implementation of this secure document, perhaps the size of a drivers licence,” Wilkins said.
Hammering away at “admittedly important bilateral issues” such as salmon, softwood lumber or wheat plays well to our domestic audience, but what Americans consider the most important issues are world issues, Simpson said. “If we don’t have anything constructive to say on those issues, we are not going to be heard.”
Americans, he said, consider their vital national security interests to lie in an arc of countries from Morocco to Pakistan. A Canadian interest-driven foreign policy would say: How can we be helpful there in a way that is consistent with our capabilities and values?
“One of the ways we can do that is try to defend and project democratic legal institutions in those countries,” Simpson said. “That is why some of us try to get across the idea that we ought to have a Canadian Democracy Institute that brings together a number of agencies so we could help in those countries, influencing Americans and world stability, consistent with the projection of our values and capabilities because we have a lot of experience in that area.”
Alan Johnston was the founding editor of the Western News, one of Canada’s only weekly university faculty and staff newspapers, where he served from 1972 until 2001.
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