CRITICS WEIGH THE ADVANTAGES OF THE FRIENDSHIP BETWEEN BRIAN MULRONEY AND GEORGE BUSH
THE TIES THAT BIND
CRITICS WEIGH THE ADVANTAGES OF THE FRIENDSHIP BETWEEN BRIAN MULRONEY AND GEORGE BUSH
Since they first met in the early 1980s, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and President George Bush have built a relationship in which their mutual affection often colors their more formal relationship. In the past four years, Bush has invited Mulroney and his family annually to his summer home in Kennebunkport, Me. Mulroney is able to reach Bush by telephone whenever he wishes, a level of access to the American President that Canada’s ambassador to Washington, Derek Burney, says is “a commitment every world leader would like, but very few possess.” And in personal gatherings, where the two men call each other by their first names, Mulroney drops his sometimes stilted public manner in favor of his blunt and often earthy private speaking style. First names and tough talk were both invoked last week when Mulroney aired Canadian complaints over American restrictive trade practices during a two-hour meeting at the White House. “George, I am taking a God damned lot of heat about this [in Canada],” Mulroney told his host in private.
Later, a smiling Bush told a group of dinner guests at the Canadian Embassy that Mulroney had been so aggressive on the issue that he “beat me over the head quite a few times.” Even so, Bush said later, “Brian will always be my friend.” Few observers would challenge that assessment, or disagree with another remark by Bush, who described the relationship between the two leaders as “the warmest” in the history of Canada-U.S. relations.
Said Burney in an interview with Maclean’s. “The chemistry between them is excellent.”
That easy bond has also brought direct benefits to Canadians on at least two occasions. In March, 1991, Bush conceded that pressure from Mulroney played a key role in passage of a bill limiting acid-rain emissions from the United States. And last month, Mulroney and Bush intervened together and directed their officials to avert pending restrictions on the export of Canadian beer to the United States.
But in Canada, a country with traditionally ambivalent feelings towards its powerful neighbor, the political value of the Bush-Mulroney friendship is less clear. Since his election in 1984, Mulroney has been chided by domestic critics who contend that he is too easily influenced by American views at the expense of Canadian interests. Said Nelson Riis, the House leader of the New Democratic Party: “Brian Mulroney is the best prime minister the United States has ever had—his view of the world is an American view.”
The volume of that criticism has oscillated throughout Mulroney's years in office. But it has grown again in recent months following a series of decisions by American politicians and tribunals that penalized several sectors of the Canadian economy, from softwood lumber to automobile manufacturing and beer exports. Last week’s Washington visit by Mulroney, coupled with his aggressive rhetoric in meetings with Bush and his most powerful advisers, was aimed at quelling those domestic critics and averting the emergence of any new trade friction. When the meetings ended, Bush promised to “become personally engaged” with Canadian concerns, though he declined to make any other specific commitments. Said Burney: “They agreed to elevate, not suffocate, the benefits of the Free Trade Agreement.”
But the outcome seemed likely to give further ammunition to both Mulroney’s admirers and detractors. And even as one adviser to Mul-
roney told Maclean’s that the trip was a “major success,” the few American reporters who covered the meetings said that White House officials emphasized to them the point that Bush made no direct concessions on trade issues.
In fact, Mulroney’s 2V2-day visit provided striking illustrations of the curious mixture of warmth and benign indifference with which members of Washington’s many-layered power structure view Canada. Bush brought three of his most important advisers, Secretary of State James Baker, Trade Representative Carla Hills and National Security Council adviser Brent Scowcroft, to a lunch—with the advance understanding that Mulroney would be chiding them.
Later that day, Bush set a new precedent in the city’s image-conscious diplomatic circles by making only the second visit ever to a foreign embassy for a glittering black-tie dinner. Hosted by Burney, the party featured a Washington A-list of guests, including Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Baker; Democrat Thomas Foley, Speaker of the House of Representatives; William Rehnquist, chief justice of the Supreme Court; and Senator Edward Kennedy. And the following day, Mulroney held a series of meetings
‘I can reach George anytime, where Trudeau would have been lucky to get past the White House operator’ —Mulroney on his access to American presidents
with key Democratic and Republican members of the Senate and House of Representatives.
But at the same time, high-level attempts to stir interest in Canadian grievances among the deeply introspective White House press corps elicited either indifference or outright disdain. Mulroney displayed an affectionate and knowledgeable regard for American journalists, greeting by first name several whom he has never met. Four American journalists—and no Canadians—were on the guest list for an embassy dinner. But even so, the American media paid scant attention to his Washington visit. Mulroney made a long appearance on The MacNeil/Lehrer Report on the PBS network, and CNN ran a brief interview with the Prime Minister on international trade matters. But newspapers generally found other matters more compelling. The Washington Post devoted only a short report on page 12 of the second section to his meeting with Bush, even though Mulroney met privately with about 20 of the newspaper’s editors and reporters for almost two hours.
Still, the Prime Minister, who places great importance on personal relationships as a means of achieving his goals, was clearly buoyed by both the tone and the range of his meetings. On a personal level, he delights in telling friends anecdotes about his dealings with other world leaders, sometimes in a fash-
ion that can seem self-serving and overly effusive. One example is the way Mulroney frequently referred to the “great bond” that existed in private between himself and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. But Gorbachev’s advisers when he was in power were baffled by that assertion. And some of them privately blamed Mulroney for Canada’s slow response to sweeping political changes in Moscow.
Similarly, British officials in London have sometimes privately dismissed Mulroney’s claim to enjoy a warm relationship with former prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Mulroney's tendency to exaggerate those friendships irritates some of his political opponents at home. Opposition Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien recently complained in private that Mulroney has a “desire to claim every leader he talks to as a personal friend.” Said a disdainful Chrétien to one associate: “Mulroney’s problem is that he wants to be on a first-name basis with everyone. He has to learn that in politics, it is more important to get what you want than it is to make friends.”
But Mulroney is on firmer ground when he compares, as he often does, the warmth of his relations with American presidents to the coolness with which he says they regarded his predecessor, Pierre Trudeau. “I can reach George [Bush] anytime I want, where Trudeau
would have been lucky to get past the White House operator,” Mulroney once boasted to friends. That view of their contrasting popularity is supported by David Jones, a specialist in Canadian affairs at the U.S. state department. “It is clear that the Prime Minister and the President are pretty compatible,” said Jones. “Pierre Elliott Trudeau was thought of [in Washington] as a nuisance.” Warmer relations with Mulroney, added Jones, lend a more positive view to all relations between the two countries because “it is an awful lot easier all the way down the line if the ones on the top get along and wish each other well.”
But some observers argue that personal chemistry between leaders ultimately has little effect on relations between their countries, particularly on such bread-and-butter issues as trade disputes. Gordon Ritchie, who was the deputy chief negotiator for Canada during free trade talks with the United States, said that the final agreement was set up to avoid intervention by politicians on either side. Instead, said Ritchie, the goal is “to refer the matter to objective organizations and panels” established by the treaty, with representatives from both countries. In one such instance, Canada has now referred its complaint over an American decision to impose duties on imported Canadian softwood lumber to an independent tribunal for arbitration.
Some analysts say that the Bush administration is simply paying polite lip service to the relationship with Mulroney as the easiest possible way to achieve American ends. Said Jack Cardozo, an instructor of Canadian studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo: “You have to look at how many meetings
Mulroney has had with American leaders and what he has come away with: seemingly not very much.” Added Cardozo: “He should tum a tougher nose to the United States and be more Canadian. Perhaps it would encourage the United States to take Canada less for granted than perhaps we do.”
Those who support that view claim that one of the periods when Canada-U.S. relations flourished was from 1969 to 1974, when Trudeau and Richard Nixon were in power. Although the two men did not like each other— the Watergate tapes revealed that Nixon once called Trudeau an “asshole”—they managed to resolve a series of long-standing trade disputes while Canada followed an international diplomatic policy that often sharply differed
from that of the United States. By the time Nixon resigned in 1974, relations had warmed and the two men sent each other private notes of appreciation.
For Mulroney, much of the value of his friendship with Bush is intangible. But there are merits to maintaining close ties to the world’s ranking superpower. It was the United States that applied to have the annual economic summit of the world’s top five industrialized nations expanded in 1976 to include Canada and Italy in the Group of Seven. And now, Bush and Mulroney, who speak by telephone on an average of once every two weeks according to advisers, exchange ideas and opinions on a variety of international issues. Said Burney: “That access provides [Canada] relevance and influence in world affairs. That is how Canadian interests are registered on major issues of the day.”
At the same time, advisers to Mulroney say that such access brings Canadians benefits that even his most ardent critics should appreciate. Through Mulroney’s general support for Bush’s policies and unabashed admiration for the United States, one adviser said, the Prime Minister “has proven his friendship in hard times to Washington. Now, that has earned him the right to be listened to when he talks about his own hard times.” Last week, Bush was clearly willing to allow Mulroney to play to his Canadian critics by absorbing a public rebuke over trade. And in doing so, Mulroney sought to demonstrate that the special relationship he has curried can pay dividends for Canada’s fortunes—and his own.
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