Somewhere over the rainbow

Michael Posner March 23 1981

Somewhere over the rainbow

Michael Posner March 23 1981

Somewhere over the rainbow


Michael Posner

"Without some dissimulation,” the Earl of Chesterfield declared at one point, “no business can be carried on at all.” As evidenced by Ronald Reagan’s ceremonial parade through Ottawa last week, the earl’s insight is as valid today as it was more than two centuries ago. The Reagan state visit, his first since taking office, might well have served as an object lesson in high-level diplomacy; like schoolchildren receiving an important visitor, official Ottawa was on its best behavior.

Anxious to please, the Americans were careful to say nothing that might offend; they therefore said next to noth-

ing at all. And, ever discreet, the Canadians largely set aside their concerns about developing U.S. policies. Having agreed to be agreeable, the president and the prime minister emerged from their several hours of discussion nearly brimming over with goodwill, voicing the optimism that flows from the conduct of reasonable men who know the value of some well-placed dissimulation. Concluded Pierre Trudeau: “There was really no subject or grievance the United States wasn’t prepared to discuss and indicate a will to settle.”

This lacquer of warmth may have masked the rough grain underneath— but that was precisely the point. Like the last-minute route change in Reagan’s motorcade into Ottawa—designed

to avoid rude throngs of demonstrators—and like the thrice-painted hoarding on Parliament Hill hiding construction scars on the Peace Tower, so did the 27-hour visit effectively conceal the rifts in an historic partnership. By mutual agreement, the pressing agenda of bilateral and multinational issues was effectively tabled for future consideration.

Still, the president may have wondered for a time just what sort of welcome he would receive. In the days and weeks leading up to the trip, the U.S. government had made four or five moves adversely affecting Canada. Withdrawal of the East Coast Fisheries Treaty from the Senate, dismissal of all three American appointees to the International Joint Commission, proposed spending cutbacks on pollution control,

release of a departmental report on the decontrol of natural gas prices (which might delay construction of the Alaska gas pipeline) and a stiffly worded diplomatic dispatch objecting to the Trudeau government’s National Energy Program (NEP)—these all generated a good deal of talk in Ottawa and elsewhere about U.S. motives. Were they intended to reprimand the prime minister and his external affairs minister, Mark MacGuigan, for their less-than-enthusiastic support for American policy in El Salvador? Were they designed to undercut Canadian positions so that the absence of conflict in head-to-head meetings might later imply that real progress had, in fact, been made? A few days before the trip, one Canadian diplomat woke up in the middle of the night, tallied recent U.S. decisions and wondered: “Am I missing something? Or am I just paranoid?” Or had the American actions even been orchestrated in the first place? Perhaps, diplomatic officials suggested, they simply represented the unco-ordinated acts of a young administration, failing to consider the impact of its behavior.

Whatever the implications, it was clear from the moment of Reagan’s arrival on Parliament Hill that the mood of determined civility was not universally shared. Objecting to U.S. arms flows to El Salvador and U.S. exports of acid rain, crowds of protesters provided a rhythmic counterpoint to the prime minister’s opening welcome. When Trudeau praised the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights as the “sweet breath of humanity,” a cynic loudly queried: “Whatever happened to them?” Reagan faced the same music and—during the

playing of the national anthems—huge banners of disaffiliation. Trudeau at last addressed himself to these “lonely voices,” noting, “the Americans have some beefs against us, too.” But privately Canadian officials seemed rather pleased by the demonstrations. Said one: “In terms of broadening public opinion in the U.S., we could not have gotten that kind of awareness in six months of working on our own.”

By all accounts, and to the surprise of many, the president and the PM—the ex-actor and the former law professorestablished a near-instant rapport. As he has almost daily in Washington, Reagan repeatedly demonstrated the importance of geniality and the value of a timely anecdote. Officials said the president did as much talking as anyone during the four hours of meetings but rarely raised specific policy questions. When the PM turned to

substantive issues, Reagan’s comeback as often as not was, “That reminds me of the lady I knew in California....”

The president did broach the North American accord, an idea that has sparked some concern in Ottawa, but Trudeau was clearly prepared for the possibility and seized the occasion to suggest a trilateral summit meeting with José López Portillo; Reagan declared it a fine idea, and the PM quickly placed a call to the Mexican president, who also was in favor. However, most observers discount the prospect of an early conclave. In turn, the PM pressed a subject dear to his own heart—the summit of North-South nations scheduled for Mexico in the fall. The U.S. inched closer to accepting an invitation but stopped short of an outright commitment.

While Trudeau and Reagan were destroying the Odd Couple thesis, other members of the respective cabinets were squaring off: ostensibly, those meetings were no less harmonious. MacGuigan and Alexander Haig, the secretary of state, held two longish ses-

sions and later told reporters that on El Salvador, the Middle East and other topics there were no fundamental disagreements. Canada did register opposition to arms traffic flowing into the strife-torn Central American nationincluding U.S. arms traffic—but both MacGuigan and Haig were at pains to record the points of agreement: support for the existing junta, the need for meaningful reforms, the wish for a political solution.

The encounters with Haig and Reagan confirmed what officials at External Affairs had already suspected— that any White House endorsement of a policy approach depends on AÍ Haig’s support. His is the looming presence of power within the new administration, and MacGuigan worked hard at airing the Canadian viewpoint. In general, the Americans seemed receptive, deliberately avoiding opportunities for confrontation.

But they gave nothing away—nothing beyond assurances that the Carter administration had not previously given, and in some cases less. On the controversial issue of East Coast fishing rights, the U.S. explained that the treaty signed nearly two years ago stood absolutely no chance of passing the Senate and that, even if the White House had attempted to muscle it through, the House would never pass the implementing legislation. In short, Reagan’s choice was either to withdraw the fishing treaty or do nothing; the former seemed preferable.

There remained, however, the question of timing. Haig had telephoned MacGuigan a week before the visit to inform him of U.S. intentions: the treaty would be withdrawn. Ottawa was

expecting that decision. But it wasn’t until two days later that it received word the announcement would be made on Friday—only four days before the president’s arrival. In fact, the timing of the announcement provoked debate at the state department; several officials felt it would be better to wait until Reagan had returned to Washington. He could tell Trudeau what he planned to do and seek his advice on what steps might then be taken to preserve scallop stocks from the rapacious fishermen on the Georges Bank. But Haig felt it would be better to take the losses before going to Ottawa; that to announce withdrawal afterward would dissipate whatever goodwill the trip had generated. Clearly, the Canadians would be aggravated, but they would be more exercised if they were led to believe ratification was still possible and later were informed it was not. Moreover, news of the administration’s imminent decision was already spreading in the northeast, and Rozanne Ridgway, the White House point man on the treaties, knew the government would soon have to confirm or deny the stories. In the end, the Americans opted for damage containment.

In Ottawa, MacGuigan went through the motions of expressing “grievous disappointment” with the U.S. action and declared his hope that Washington

would push some sort of fisheries management agreement on its industry. Reagan gave his word that he would try, but Ridgway suggested it might be four years before conservation measures could be implemented. In four years, scallops might well be an endangered species in the region, and a good many independent fishermen, mostly American, will probably be out of business.

Reagan made other promises, but those too failed to satisfy some Canadians. He pledged, for example, to abide by American commitments made in the Boundary Waters Treaty (1909). He said the $9.7 million earmarked for work this year on the Garrison Diversion project in North Dakota would not pollute Canadian waters. He said proposed consultations on the project would proceed as planned later this spring. Welcome as these assurances were, they did not remove Canada’s bottom-line concern: that any work risks the accidental spillage of biota into Canadian waters, and that such work is not really costeffective until further construction—to which Canada strenuously objects—is completed.

The president played the appeaser on air pollution as well, insisting that his

administration would lend its “best efforts” to conservation and that the International Joint Commission, which enforces the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, would not be affected by budget reductions. On acid rain, Reagan appeared amenable to going ahead with treaty negotiations, but he probably won’t be in any hurry. Five working groups (four technical and one legal) set up under the 1980 Memorandum of Intent are scheduled to finish their reports by midyear, but a number of technical problems must be solved before formal negotiations can begin. The optimistic sign: acid rain is one of the few areas covered by the Clean Air Act in which a recent report by the Commission on Air Quality did not propose either rollbacks or a standstill. On the other hand, the White House’s own proposals would strip the act of some tough regulations and almost certainly add to acid rain levels.

Washington renewed its support for the Alaska natural gas pipeline, with the ever-present proviso that private enterprise assume the entire financial risk. In part, as Trudeau told a press conference last week, this is basic strategy, since any hint of willingness by Reagan to shoulder loan guarantees would quickly lead Wall Street to reconsider the whole project. Still, there are grave fears on Parliament Hill that private industry is not prepared to bear the entire price tag—an estimated $35 billion. As time passes, costs escalate. Work on the southern “pre-build” section of the pipeline is under way, but it is only feasible if it is stretched to Prudhoe Bay.

But of all the current bilateral tensions, nothing seems to have annoyed the Americans so much as Canada’s NEP. Since the program was announced in October, there has been a constant flow of diplomatic notes from the U.S. expressing “general concern” about various features of the plan. Less than a week before the visit, the state department’s international energy policy desk, part of the Bureau of Economic and Business Policy, issued its strongest protest yet, specifically naming the elements of the plan it opposed and suggesting changes that would meet those objections. Stung by its delivery, Canadian officials denounced the note and within 48 hours it was formally withdrawn—an unprecedented action in the memory of External Affairs veterans. Asked about the message at his wind-up press conference, Alexander Haig thrust out his soldier’s face and said the contents did not reflect the administration’s view or his own. Then he added, “I do not anticipate a similar letter being sent.”

But if the note did not reflect the Reagan administration’s policy, how, then, did it obtain the clearances and approval needed for delivery? American officials were privately inclined to blame it on poor co-ordination. The pressures of El Salvador and the Reagan economic package meant that few senior aides began to look seriously at Canadian issues until the president’s visit was almost upon them. “Everything was in turmoil,” one official told Maclean's. “The co-ordination process just didn’t work very well.” At Camp David on the weekend before the trip, Reagan polished his speech for the joint session of Parliament and looked over his briefings books. But he had gone there unaccompanied by anyone who

might have given him an oral briefing on the issues.

In fact, some officials at State wonder whether the note would have created the flap it did had it not been sent on the eve of the president’s first trip abroad and the first by a U.S. president to Canada since 1972. Canadian diplomats do not think highly of that suggestion. Said one: “There’s a certain amount of barnyard excrement involved.” American officials also refused to rule out a similar letter being sent in the future—Haig’s dictum notwithstanding—to which the Canadian response is: cui bono? (to whose advantage?) What is certain is that Washington was embarrassed by the timing, if not the contents, of the note, and Reagan barely raised the subject of the NEP during his talks with Trudeau.

In Washington, the consensus is that the trip to Canada served domestic po-

litical purposes on both sides of the border but that the U.S. was really underprepared for the visit at its senior levels. That fact, plus the need to mend damage by the NEP note and the fishing treaty withdrawal, ensured that no real movement on any outstanding issues would be made. No ambassadors would be named, only a few rumors would be allowed to circulate—about the donnish Allan Gotlieb, External’s deputy minister, being sent to Washington, and some rich Republican banker coming north to Ottawa. There would be no conflicts, only renewed expressions of friendship. Trudeau quoted Thoreau; Reagan quoted Gordon Sinclair. The president and Nancy Reagan planted trees, attended a state dinner and were guests of

honor at a gala concert featuring Anne Murray, who did not sing enough, and the Good Brothers, who did. Aides and advisers declared delight at the cordial ambience of the talks and what they presaged for the future of the relationship, but nobody—as one Canadian diplomat put it—was “in any doubt about where the booby traps were or what the real world looks like.” The Americans returned home with another smash hit, another episode in the continuing Ronald Reagan Hour, and the Canadians were left holding a bag of vows and pledges as palpable as air. “We are not prepared in the long run to settle for expressions of goodwill,” Mark MacGuigan insisted. But there was no suggestion of what Canada would do when the facades were taken down and the goodwill was all used up.

With files from John Hay and Robert Lewis.