Canada and the World

A NEW CAST OF POWERFUL PLAYERS

Andrew Phillips February 19 2001
Canada and the World

A NEW CAST OF POWERFUL PLAYERS

Andrew Phillips February 19 2001

On the last weekend of his presidency, back in January, 1993, George Bush the elder hosted a final gathering at Camp David. It was a poignant time for the outgoing President, who invited an array of Washington notables to share the moment. Several justices of the U.S. Supreme Court were there. So were the chiefs of staff of the American armed forces, led by their chairman, Gen. Colin Powell. Also present was then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his wife, Mila, who had forged a strong friendship with the Bush family. Along with him for the special overnight party at Camp David, Mulroney took Canada’s acting ambassador to Washington, Michael Kergin.

Eight years later, Kergin is back in Washington—this time as ambassador in his own right. And as Ottawa tries to reach an understanding with the brand-new administration of George Bush the younger, Kergin finds himself building on relationships that began during the first Bush era. Powell, of course, is now secretary of state, and other veterans from that time who worked closely with Canada are back as top aides to George W Bush. They include Vice-President Dick Cheney, the most important figure in Washington aside from the President himself, and Robert Zoellick, the new U.S. trade representative who was crucial to negotiating the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement a dozen years ago. Kergin worked with them all, and though he modestly calls his role “an accident of history,” he adds: “These encounters are remembered, and it helps.”

Personal ties, of course, do not shape relations between neighbouring countries that depend so much on each other. But they don’t hurt, either, when it comes to pulling off an event like last week’s quickie get-to-know-you meeting in Washington between Bush and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. Sixteen days into his presidency, Bush sat down with Chrétien for a 45-minute Oval Office chat and a 90-minute dinner. Bush offered fulsome words about “this good man right here”—though, publicly at least, he did not attempt actually to pronounce Chrétien's name. The Prime Minister, in turn, left his fondness for anti-American barbs at home, told Bush that his father originally hailed from Manchester, N.H., and compared himself modestly to “a cousin coming to visit.”

Chrétien's meeting with Bush—the new President’s first face-to-face session with a foreign leader—calmed for the moment Canadian jitters about being displaced by Mexico as the object of Washington’s affections. But there are a host of issues that raise the possibility of friction between Canada and the new administration. They range from trade disputes to disagreements over Bush’s determination to open the environmentally sensitive Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and his controversial plan for an ambitious anti-missile shield that critics argue will violate international arms control agreements.

The changes aren’t just on one side of the border. As it turns out, there are new teams on both sides set to manage the relationship, as well as other figures whispering in the ear of the Bush administration. Mulroney made it clear that he is still trading on his old connections, telling the National Post recently that people at the “highest reaches” of the Republican team have sought his views on Chrétien and the Liberal government. And David Frum, the conservative Post columnist and pundit based in Washington, has been hired as a White House speechwriter. Inevitably, that will put him in a position to voice his well-known views, critical of the Liberals, to other Bush aides. Canadian officials publicly brush off any such concerns, though one confided last week after a significant pause: “I think we could do without that, frankly.”

The biggest change, of course, is on the U.S. side, but Canada’s Team America is also significantly different. John Manley, who took over as foreign minister last October, made it clear from the start that he would make trade and relations with the United States his top priority. Left unsaid was an implicit downgrading of so-called soft power issues, like a treaty banning land mines and setting up an international criminal court, that his predecessor, Lloyd Axworthy, championed— often to the embarrassment and annoyance of Washington. The result is that Manley, a former industry minister, comes to his portfolio with no perceived anti-American bias, and so may be more congenial to the all-business Bush team. “It’ll be a lot easier for Manley to get on with them,” says Stephen Clarkson, a political economist at the University of Toronto who is currently a fellow at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center. “He’s safe as far as they’re concerned. He believes in the gospel of free trade.”

Canada’s new ambassador is also well-suited to Bush’s Washington. Kergin, a 58-year-old career diplomat, lacks the public profile of his predecessor, Raymond Chrétien. But he also lacks the baggage that Chrétien acquired last summer when he publicly noted that Bush, as a governor of Texas with a natural orientation towards his southern neighbour, did not know Canada as well as his opponent, Vice-President Al Gore. This statement of the obvious was interpreted as an implicit Canadian endorsement of Gore—something that the Bush camp noted and did not appreciate. Chrétien's uncle Jean wisely shuffled him off to a comfortable berth as ambassador to Paris.

The new White House has also helped relations by not changing its ambassador. In an unusual move, it asked Gordon Giffin to stay on in Ottawa until his successor is chosen and confirmed by the Senate, which could take many months. Giffin’s appointment in 1997 was po-litical: he is a Georgia Democrat who ran the Clinton-Gore campaigns in that state in both 1992 and 1996. The normal course for a Republican administration would be to ask him to pack his bags within weeks. But Giffin has established himself as a well-regarded broker of the Canada-U.S. relationship, as well as a key figure in the run-up to the Summit of the Americas set for late April in Quebec City. That meeting will be Bush's debut on the international stage, and the White House badly wants it to go smoothly. Keeping Giffin also provides valuable continuity between Ottawa and Washington at a time when so much else is changing. “It’s a sign they’re not putting partisanship ahead of good policy,” says Christopher Sands, director of the Canada project at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Another key figure on the Bush team for Canadians is Zoellick, Bush’s choice as chief trade representative. The Canada-U.S. trading relationship, worth about $626 billion a year, has been relatively stable of late, but that may soon change. A U.S.-Canada agreement regulating softwood lumber exports worth about $10 billion a year is set to expire on March 31, and senators are pressing the White House to get tough with Ottawa. Max Baucus of Montana warned Zoellick at his confirmation hearing in late January that failure to limit Canadian lumber exports could “ignite a trade war.”

Zoellick was non-committal on the lumber issue, but he knows Canada as well as any American official. As deputy to James Baker, who served as Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff and the elder George Bush’s secretary of state, Zoellick was at the centre of negotiating both the original Canada-U.S. free-trade deal in 1987 and the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1992. Kergin, who had many dealings with him during his previous tour of duty in Washington, recalls that Zoellick was key to resuscitating the Canada-U.S. trade talks when they were in danger of collapse. At the time, top Canadian officials flew to Washington to meet Baker and Zoellick and see if negotiations could be revived. “It damn near came apart at one point,” says Kergin. “Zoellick was the one who said, ‘Let’s give it one more shot.’ ” Zoellick also worked closely with Canadian officials on an unrelated issue: the reunification of Germany. He was Baker’s point man for Germany in 1990, and oversaw talks on unification held in Toronto that year. Sands, who worked under him when Zoellick was president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, calls him “brilliant—one of those intimidatingly smart guys.” 

Canadian officials predict that Zoellick will be tough in pressing U.S. interests. But they also expect he will take a wider view—balancing the importance of a particular trade dispute against the value of Canadian co-operation on broader issues, especially expanding trade throughout the Western Hemisphere through the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Bush has made that a top priority, and the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City will be key to his success. In its role as host, Canada is in a position to help him out. It can, says Clarkson, be as simple as ensuring that meetings are structured formally so that the rookie President has fewer opportunities to embarrass himself. That, plus careful cultivation of old friendships with people in high places, could go a long way towards smoothing the relationship.