World

The 'just right' summit

Not too hot, not too cold— perfect for an election

ANDREW PHILLIPS April 21 1997
World

The 'just right' summit

Not too hot, not too cold— perfect for an election

ANDREW PHILLIPS April 21 1997

The 'just right' summit

Not too hot, not too cold— perfect for an election

Bill Clinton may not have been able to give Jean Chrétien the round of golf he had promised him when the Prime Minister visited Washington last week. The President’s injured knee ruled that out. But politicians have a way of making the best of any situation, so Clinton made a point of showing Chrétien his prized collection of golf clubs when he invited his visitor over to the White House for an unscheduled first-night chat. After giving Chrétien a tour of the Clintons’ family quarters, the President ushered him into his private study and brought out the clubs— including one that once belonged to John E Kennedy and another from William Fulbright, the late Arkansas senator who was Clinton’s political mentor. Then they sat, sipping Armagnac and talking easily about—what else?—politics, while the 30 minutes that White House staff had allotted for the session stretched into an hour and a half. By all accounts, the man from Hope and the “little guy” from Shawinigan have achieved a comfort level that even they may not have expected, and the Prime Minister offered his own explanation. “He’s an old pro,” he told an aide later, “and he sees me as an even older pro.” Two old pros, talking shop over a few snifters of something dark and strong. One might almost call it cozy—except for the fact that Chrétien went out of his way two days later to emphatically deny that his rapport with Clinton is any such thing. “Good—and not cozy,” was how the Prime Minister summed up “the relationship” after being reminded that he used to severely criticize Brian Mulroney for getting too chummy with Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

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Other peoples might find it encouraging—even touching—that the President of the United States would have their leader over to the house for an impromptu private session. But Canadians are ever on guard against getting too close to their powerful neighbor, so Chrétien faced pointed questions during his three-day official visit to the U.S. capital, his first since he took office in 1993. He had waited until the eve of an almost-certain election call, and as it turned out, his timing was good. For Chrétien, in fact, this was the Goldilocks Summit. For his purposes, relations with the United States are not too hot, and not too cold; they’re just right.

Overall, the leaders were able to bask in the glow of a relationship that is going as well as it has at any time in recent memory. Trade

ANDREW PHILLIPS

IN WASHINGTON

disputes are few and far between, and free trade is an accepted fact on both sides of the border. To be sure, there are a few high-profile issues dividing Ottawa and Washington—notably how to promote democracy in Cuba, and Canada’s desire to protect its cultural industries. But with a federal election call expected by the end of the month, both sides knew better than to press for action in those areas. Instead, the disputes served the useful purpose of giving Chrétien an opportunity to publicly assert his government’s independence from Washington, as he frequently did.

His aides carefully pointed out that American leaders used warmer rhetoric about Canada than Chrétien used in talking about the United States. And after celebrating the friendship at an elegant state dinner on Tuesday, the Prime Minister went out of his way the next day to underline the differences. Canada, he said in effect, is a distinct society that values such things as universal health

Bill Clinton joins Jean Chrétien; Hillary Clinton with Aline Chrétien: one glitch

care and gun control. Chretien’s most successful applause line during a speech to the National Press Club came when he expressed satisfaction that the U.S. National Rifle Association “was unsuccessful in its attempt to export some of its expertise to Canada.” A senior aide to the Prime Minister made it clear that the Liberals see gun control as a key campaign issue. “We’re going to whack the Tories and Reform around on this,” he said.

Chretien’s visit almost perfectly mirrored the ambivalence that Canadians feel towards the United States—alternately drawn to and repelled by American might. That could be seen even in tiny

details. The Prime Minister was accompanied by four of his ministers when he went to the White House on Tuesday morning for a meeting in the Oval Office with Clinton, followed by a joint cabinet session. With the blossoms on the trees in the fabled Rose Garden, the setting seemed perfect—and even ministers who have been known to indulge in a little Yankee-bashing for domestic consumption could not resist filling their pockets with special White House M&Ms as souvenirs. Chrétien himself asked an aide to grab a few for his grandchildren.

The easy rapport between the two leaders had one quick, albeit modest, payoff. Canadian officials were anxious to promote the socalled Canada Hand, a sophisticated robotic extension of the famed Canadarm manufactured by Spar Aerospace of Toronto that will be used in building the International Space Station starting at the end of 1998. They had asked the White House for permission to display a three-metre model of the hand at Clinton and Chretien’s joint news conference. According to a Canadian official, the Americans said no; they had had bad experiences with props that didn’t work. But when the President and the Prime Minister were sitting in the Oval Office, Clinton joked that he wished Canada could come up with a robotic knee to replace the one whose tendon he tore in early March. Then, the President overruled his officials by saying: “Let’s get that model in the Rose Garden; it’ll look good.” It was rushed over from the Canadian Embassy in time for their appearance two hours later.

There were more substantive achievements, though nothing as wide-ranging as the Open Skies agreement expanding cross-border air travel that was the centrepiece of Clinton’s 1995 official visit to Ottawa. Instead, the two sides signed a series of small-scale accords touching on everything from pollution to white-collar crime. They agreed to cut toxic wastes flowing into the Great Lakes. They pro^ duced a series of measures to ease border controls—such as stay| ing open round-the-clock at 22 small crossings by using remote I video cameras to monitor traffic. They settled on ways to let Asian ? travellers pass directly through Vancouver International Airport on « their way to the United States without first clearing Canadian customs—making it easier for the airport to act as a North American gateway from the east. And they vowed to crack down on crooked telemarketing schemes run out of Canada that victimize American senior citizens.

They did touch on the hot issues between them, albeit briefly. On Cuba, perhaps the most intractable problem, American officials gave the Canadians advance notice of a compromise they announced late last week on Helms-Burton, the American law that penalizes foreign companies that profit from investing in American § property in Cuba confiscat¿ ed by the Castro govern§ ment. The United States per¡i suaded the European Union to postpone for six months its challenge against Helms-Burton in the World Trade Organization. In return, the administration agreed to soften the part of the law that can bar executives of companies doing business on the island from entering the United States. On culture, Chrétien again made Canada’s case for protecting its magazine industry by banning socalled split-run editions of American magazines that bleed off Canadian advertising dollars. According to a senior White House official, Vice-President Al Gore listened quietly to the Prime Minister’s expla-

nation, then jumped in by jokingly calling it “a fiendishly clever argument for protectionism.”

With the Ottawa-Washington relationship humming along so nicely, Chrétien and Clinton spent more time than usual on global issues. The President urged the Prime Minister to keep pressing China on its human rights record. Each year since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, Canada has been among the Western countries co-sponsoring a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Commission criticizing China for abuses. But last week, France withdrew its support for the resolution, other European countries softened their support, and Canada started to waver.

At the White House, Clinton urged Chrétien to keep Canada as a co-sponsor of the resolution, which comes to a vote this week in Geneva. “The message was ‘be steady, don’t succumb to bullying from the Chinese,’ ” a senior administration official said later.

Canada, though, fears that China might retaliate against it by using its veto in the UN Security Council to block an extension of the mandate for Canadian peacekeepers in Haiti, which expires at the end of July. Clinton assured Chrétien that the United States would take on China in the Security Council over Haiti. But at week’s end, Canada was still mulling over its position on the issue.

There was one glitch during the visit. Part of the ritual of leaders’ summits is a separate event for their spouses, and the two sides agreed on something with the highly appropriate themes of education and technology. Chrétien’s wife, Aline, travelled with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to an elementary school in a poor black neighborhood of southeast Washington to watch the students talk to schoolchildren in Ottawa through a live audiovisual Internet link. The women enthused about high-tech communication and cross-border learning before a backdrop of state-of-the-art computer monitors and work stations. But as soon as they left, technicians took out the equipment, which the Canadian Embassy had rented for the occasion. The children, it turned out, would be left with a single outdated computer able to connect with the Internet. But in keeping with the summit’s upbeat mood, even that embarrassing episode had a happy ending. After members of the Telephone Pioneers of Canada charity group began working the phones, the American arm of Mississauga, Ont.-based Northern Telecom agreed to donate 10 computers to the school—ensuring that the Prime Minister’s foray to Washington will have at least one lasting benefit. □

The ambassador game

WORLD

Jean Chrétien may have learned a few things from Bill Clinton when they met privately in Washington, but the Prime Minister came away no wiser about something of direct interest to Canada: the identity of the next American ambassador to Ottawa. The post has been vacant for just over a year, since former ambassador James Blanchard left Ottawa on March

31, 1996, to work on the President’s reelection campaign. There is no special snub to Canada in the extraordinary delay: about 60 countries, including such powerhouses as Japan, Germany and France, also lack U.S. ambassadors. The standard explanation is that the American process for selecting and confirming ambassadors is so cumbersome that it is bound to drag on. But Clinton is taking so long to make up his mind that even state department officials find it hard to conceal their exasperation. Asked about the latest line on who the President might send to Ottawa, one official just threw up his hands and said: “I can tell you flat out—we have no idea.” The latest problem is the growing scandal over how the Democratic party raised its election funds. High-profile ambassadorial positions usually go to political supporters of the president—who, natu-

rally, tend to be significant donors themselves or to be involved in twisting other people’s arms for cash. The tangled tale of how the Democratic national committee and the White House used such perks as nights in the Lincoln Bedroom to reward donors has made the subject radioactive in Washington. The last thing the administration wants is to nominate an ambassador—and then see him or her shot down by the Republicancontrolled Senate for involvement in the fund-raising controversy.

Still, there were some hints during Chrétien’s visit to Washington. At Tuesday night’s state dinner in the White House for the Prime Minister, close observers noted the presence of two men who are being considered for Ottawa. One is Philip Lader, a 50-year-old Democrat and Clinton crony from South Carolina best known for organizing the legendary Renaissance Weekends that bring together hundreds of top-level politicians, businessmen and academics. The other is Gordon Giffin, 47, a lawyer from Atlanta who chaired Clinton’s campaign in Georgia in both 1992 and 1996. In an account of the dinner, The Washington Post noted acidly that “insiders amused themselves watching Lader and Giffin jockey for position ... No front-runner could be determined.” In fact, Lader is the favored candidate and has been since at least New Year’s, when Clinton attended a Renaissance Weekend in Hilton Head, S.C., and asked his old friend whether he would be interested in Ottawa. But Giffin has an unusual claim to the position: although born in Massachusetts, he moved to Montreal with his family as a six-week-old baby and was raised there and in Toronto. Aside from a year-long stint in Boston, he lived in Canada until he graduated from high school and still has many friends in Toronto. “I’ve got a lot of abiding interest in Canada,” he noted cautiously last week. Still, one Washington insider who tracks such things put odds of 70 to 30 on Lader.

Not that, in the end, it matters much: the Canada-U.S. relationship has been flourishing with a career diplomat, Thomas Weston, running the Ottawa embassy as chargé d’affaires. The problem for Washington is not substance, but perception. It simply looks bad to go without an ambassador to your biggest trading partner for a full year—and counting.

ANDREW PHILLIPS