In the Oval Office they bantered about electioneering and pondered arms control. Over pheasant consommé and sea bass in the Family Dining Room, they swapped stories about Irish priests, complete with accents, before launching into their shared obsession: how to trim government bureaucracy. By the time they emerged from the south portico of the White House 105 minutes later, it was clear that in only his eighth day in office, Brian Mulroney—the Prime Minister who President Ronald Reagan chummily dubbed “the other North American Irishman”—had already made good his campaign vow to usher in a new dawn of “superb relations” across the 49th parallel.
Reagan administration officials, who encouraged Mulroney’s visit as part of the president’s week-long foreign policy media blitz, were left praising the personal chemistry between the two leaders. And after four other top members of the U.S. cabinet followed Reagan’s lead and booked dates with their Canadian counterparts over the next two weeks, Mulroney aides jubilantly predicted a new wave of American investment that would help jolt the Canadian economy out of its doldrums.
But as the Prime Minister returned to Ottawa with a painful ear infection, not all the reviews of his 18-hour trip to Canada’s largest trading partner were equally comforting. Acerbic ABC TV news commentator Sam Donaldson said that in public the Prime Minister looked nervous and ungainly beside Reagan. Said Donaldson: “He doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands.” (Mulroney aides later blamed that on the fact that the Prime Minister only stopped smoking before the election campaign.) More seriously, some Canadian commentators wondered what good would be gained from chemistry and clichés in dealing with such long-standing points of contention as acid rain, North Dakota’s controversial Garrison water project, fishing rights and cost sharing for a new defence alert system across the Arctic. Said political pollster Alan Frizzell of Ottawa’s Carleton University: “The rhetoric is terrific, but it’s purely rhetoric. The problems are just too big and they aren’t going to go away.” Others cautioned that Canada could end up paying too high a price for the new over-the-border coziness. Indeed, at
the very moment Mulroney was offering Reagan private assurances about Canada’s new openness to U.S. capital, Canadian International Trade Minister James Kelleher was announcing to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Toronto that the government would change the two most irksome thorns in Washington’s side. The government will move away from incentive grants for petroleum exploration that discriminated against non-Canadian firms, and the Foreign Investment Review Agency (FIRA), will be transformed into a boosterish capital magnet renamed Investment Canada. Declared University of Toronto political economist Stephen
Clarkson: “It’s kind of like signing a blank cheque very quickly—not a very effective negotiating technique.” Clarkson and other critics also pointed to the potential dangers of embracing a regime whose policies on Central America and the Soviet Union are rejected by many Canadians. Indeed, delivering an address beside Reagan in the Roosevelt Room of the White House to honor Canadian astronaut Marc Garneau’s participation in this week’s space shuttle, the Prime Minister showed that he was acutely aware of that trap. He pointedly noted that a refurbished friendship with the White House “implies no subservience.” While the tone of
Mulroney’s Washington visit was greeted with overwhelming approval in Canadian business circles, nationalists were quick to condemn the implications of too close a Canadian-U.S. embrace. “If you look at Mulroney’s track record,” declared Ontario New Democratic Party Leader Robert Rae, “you see that he served as a branch plant president (for the U.S.-owned Iron Ore Co. of Canada). That was his whole training, and I’m afraid that is his perception of the whole country.”
But some Canadians were willing to put other concerns aside if a closer relation with the United States can help to produce a stronger Canadian economy. “Ten years ago I was a rampant nationalist,” admitted Selena Dack, a Toronto communications co-ordinator and single parent. “But I’m thinking of my kid now. If the relationship between Mulroney and Reagan invites more money and more branch plants, we can get people some jobs.”
In the meantime, a Canadian voice that differed in some respects from Mulroney’s was heard when External Affairs Minister Joe Clark addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York on the day Mulroney was at the White House. Clark reaffirmed Canada’s traditional role in global affairs as moderator and conciliator. “We have no corner on moral authority or technical expertise,” declared Clark, “but we do enjoy a reputation as a people who are serious and skilled at mediation.” He went on to praise Reagan’s own plea to the UN—which the U.S. president followed up in talks with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko (page 20)—for better communication between the superpowers. But Clark also spoke in favor of several international initiatives that have been stubbornly resisted in Washington, including greater progress on a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty and superpower negotiations to ban weapons in outer space. Observed John Lamb, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament in Ottawa: “I wonder if there isn’t a fundamental tension between Mulroney’s broad brush on Canada-U.S. relations and Canada’s capacity to press the United States on specific issues such as arms control.”
One unexpected aspect of the simultaneous visits to the United States by Mulroney and Clark—the timing set off speculation in Ottawa that Mulroney had tried to steal the spotlight from Clark’s UN speech—was that it was Clark who rated a headline in The New York Times, not Mulroney. That, in turn, may have disappointed members of the White House re-election machine, who had hoped to make more political profit out of showing Reagan with a dashing Canadian who beamed from the
cover of Time magazine only weeks before. But, while Mulroney’s visit received slight attention in the American media, his wife, Mila, rated lead mention in The Washington Post social columns. The Post reported that Mila, who had coffee with Nancy Reagan, had more in common with the First Lady than her wardrobe: both are doctor’s daughters.
For their part, White House aides rated the visit as not only one of the most successful Reagan has had with a Canadian but as one of the best ever with a world leader. The president has managed easy relationships with only two other world figures, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain and Ja-
pan’s Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. Confided one Washington official: “Now we’ve just established a third.” But the enthusiasm over the Mulroney-Reagan chemistry and shared conservative values may have disguised the fact that there has been little change so far in fundamental U.S.-Canadian relations. Indeed, the earlier paralysing chill between the two countries had already moderated considerably since the Trudeau government began backing away two years ago from some of the toughest FIRA practices and softening the terms of the National Energy Program. Officials on both sides also insist
that Reagan’s personal antipathy toward Trudeau was exaggerated by the media. In fact, some observers contend that Mulroney could disappoint large segments of the Reagan administration and U.S. business community who expect him to be more conservative than he is. As pollster Frizzell told a startled audience at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies last week, “If you’re looking for major shifts in Canada, you’re not going to find them.”
But other observers believed that the rapport between Mulroney and Reagan could carry considerable political weight. Charles Doran, director of the Canadian Studies and International Relations programs, at Johns Hopkins, noted that “when bureaucrats know that top people are interested, they’re going to push harder to get an issue through. When there are good relations at the top, they know it means the president is willing to go the extra mile.” Some administration officials pointed out that Reagan has already done just that. A week before Mulroney’s arrival, White House Trade Representative William Brock announced that Canada was exempt from U.S. steel import restrictions—although Congress could legislate a reversal of that decision.
But the real test of whether the camaraderie will have practical effects will come on such issues as acid rain and trade, where Reagan faces immense regional and protectionist sentiment in Congress to oppose Canadian interests. Conversely, the White House could fall out of love with Mulroney. Said Doran: “If he were unable to deliver in an area where he had made a strong promise —for example in energy policy— there would be disenchantment here.”
For now, at least, Mulroney has chosen to put his relations with Washington on a footing that will provoke continuing criticism from Canadian nationalists. But the new Prime Minister is also a pragmatist who may not always find the Reagan administration as convenient an ally as it appeared to be as he basked in the diplomatic triumph of his first foreign outing since taking office. In fact, as he stood side by side with Reagan exchanging vows of neighborliness in the Roosevelt Room, he could well have found a cautionary omen in the painting on the apricot walls behind him. It was a portrait of Theodore Roosevelt, one of the American presidents that Canadians came to resent because, when it came to disputing the boundary between Alaska and Canada, he metamorphosed from a good neighbor into a bully.
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