Canada and the World

A Texan looks south

Andrew H. Malcolm February 12 2001
Canada and the World

A Texan looks south

Andrew H. Malcolm February 12 2001

A Texan looks south

Canada and the World

Andrew H. Malcolm

There’s good news for the hopeful and bad news for the cynical in Canada as the new U.S. President puts his boots up in the Oval Office. The good news is George W. Bush's memory for loyal friends and neighbours is as enduring as the memory of the elephant that is his party’s symbol. So strong is this personal trait that one high-school pal is actually in charge of hiring loyalists for the new administration. The bad news is the new President means what he says and says what he means. So folks can hide no longer in wishful or worried interpretations of words and actions out of Washington.

Bush is more of a doer than a talker. But what he has said is, his foreign policy begins in this hemisphere. That was THE focus of his major campaign foreign policy speech (in Miami on Aug. 25). And that will be the focus of his first two foreign trips as President—to Mexico in mid-February and Canada in April.

Ottawa may worry that Canada comes second to Mexico on Bush’s priority list.

Yes, the Prime Minister’s nephew Raymond Chrétien, formerly Canada’s ambassador in Washington, did express an untimely campaign preference for Bush’s opponent, Al Gore. But the practical reality is the United States’ relations are more challenging now with Mexico than they are with Canada. Both Bush and Mexico’s Vicente Fox must address the stubborn and emotional problem of illegal immigration, which has seen millions of Mexicans pour into the United States.

Bush grew up in Texas, once part of Mexico. As governor, he met with his Mexican counterparts often. And when the United Van Lines truck hauling the Bush family furniture left Austin for the White House, it encountered highway construction zones on Interstate 35, one of many north-south routes expanding these days because of the rapidly growing commerce between Mexico and the rest of North America. It’s also happening in Alberta, which has its own north-south corporate ties and pipeline links. When the last stretch of Alberta’s Highway 4 is widened from Lethbridge to the Montana border, yet another superhighway, this one from Edmonton to Tijuana, will link the commerce and culture of the three lands.

As Jean Chrétien gets to know Bush, starting with his visit to Washington this week, he will find the new President wellbriefed on the issues and disarmingly congenial in person.

Canadians—and their leaders—would do well to invest more in this new relationship by developing trust than by lazily comparing Bush to his predecessors; to do so risks falling into the smug trap of underestimating Bush, as so many, including Gore, have done over the years.

The new Presidents trade representative is Robert Zoellick, a veteran trade negotiator who worked on the NAFTA deal and who shares his boss’s commitment to free trade—starting in this hemisphere. “Our neighbours to the north and south will not be afterthoughts,” Bush said when he announced Zoellick’s appointment.

Canadians would be wise not to underestimate Bush as the new President assesses his hemispheric allies

What seems likely with the pragmatic Bush administration is a closer connection between trade and strategic interests managed by government veterans such as Colin Powell at the state department, Donald Rumsfeld at defence, Zoellick and Don Evans, a Bush buddy and Texas oilman, now secretary of commerce. Thus, open trade with Mexico, with proper political precautions to ease domestic difficulties from increased foreign competition, is desirable to a Bush administration—and not just as an economic theory. It is desirable because it will also create a stronger Mexican middle class of owners and consumers, which will provide more jobs at home in Mexico to ease illegal immigration pressures while creating new markets for American goods.

Though usually overlooked by the media, the reality of the Canada-U.S. relationship is that the economic interdependence of the two countries owes very little to the changeable political winds of personality and very much to the ongoing geographic, economic, linguistic, historical and cultural affinities of the two populations. A president or prime minister can affect the perceived condition of relations. But given the immense scale of the world’s largest bilateral economic relationship, linked by everything from international companies, bridges and power grids to highways, TV programs, firefighting compacts and hockey leagues for 12-year-olds, politicians from either side are like pickup trucks stopped on a railroad crossing. They can make a mess by staying there or they can get out of the way and applaud as the train rumbles through. These days in the U.S., the engines and cars are likely to be CN s anyway.

Yes, in a restaurant George W. Bush is more likely to order enchiladas than fiddleheads. But he meant what he said about neighbours not being afterthoughts. And now that he resides in the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, his neighbour just 11 blocks away at No. 501 is the Embassy of Canada.

Andrew H. Malcolm, a former New York Times bureau chief in Canada and author of the 1985 best-seller The Canadians, was deputy communications manager for George W. Bush in the presidential campaign. He lives in Montana.