Allan Gotlieb reveals his strategy for getting Washington to listen
LUIZA CH. SAVAGEDecember112006
How to really get along with the U.S.
Allan Gotlieb reveals his strategy for getting Washington to listen
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
Nearly 20 years have passed since Allan Gotlieb left his post as Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., first under Pierre Trudeau and then Brian Mulroney. But his shadow still hovers over the embassy: he and his writer wife, Sondra, both native Winnipeggers, ran the mission to the U.S. in a way that no one has since matched. His successors still follow many of “Gotlieb’s rules” of diplomacy that the Rhodes Scholar laid out over more than seven memorable years— among them, “we are not simply two clone nations with one—us—occasionally suffering from aberrant policies.” Gotlieb is now publishing his private journal, spanning the begin-
nings of the Free Trade Agreement, the softwood lumber dispute, acid rain and the first mentions of missile defence—or, as he puts it, “One Damn Thing After Another.” The Washington Diaries are very much like the man himself: alternately self-congratulatory and self-deprecating, policy-wonk-dry and bladder-busting funny, with insights that withstand the test of time. “Americans just do not see us as different from themselves,” he writes. “When we do something different, Americans feel betrayed. They don’t see us as foreigners but as perverse Americans.” There was certainly some common chord that helped Gotlieb press Canada’s case in Washington. He was the shrewd operator who ingratiated himself with Ronald Reagan’s closest advisers, and pioneered aggressive
advocacy in Congress. His wife was the striving hostess who penned satirical columns in the Washington Post that left Ottawa bureaucrats apoplectic. It wasn’t all champagne and caviar, or, in the Gotliebs’ case, Winnipeg goldeye. Canadian critics griped about the entertainment bills. A former White House deputy chief of staff turned lobbyist, Michael Deaver, hired to raise Canada’s profile, was investigated for corruption and convicted of perjury. Sondra was so overcome by the stress of last-minute seating arrangements for a Mulroney visit that she gave her social secretary an undiplomatic slap, making headlines in both countries. But it was all part and parcel, as Gotlieb tried to chronicle, of “the enormity, if not the futility, of the task of promoting and defending the interests of Canada in a country which has so long taken us for granted.” Gotlieb’s ambassadorship began inauspiciously. When he first arrived at the White House in December 1981 to present his credentials, he was “lumped together with the representatives of Gabon, Upper Volta, Tunisia, Ireland, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.” The ceremony lasted seven minutes. “No doubt this was a mark of our special relationship,” he writes. When he called on the legendary Democratic Speaker of the House, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, there were another 18 or so people waiting for an audience. “He pumps my hand,” Gotlieb writes of his turn. “I tell him who I am. He smiles, graciously, tells me what a great country I represent, and moves on. The interview lasted 30 seconds.” When calling on members of Congress, Gotlieb concludes, “One always feels as though he is begging. One is. The challenge: how to beg and keep one’s dignity.”
The answer, it turns out, was to embrace Jane Austen’s dictum that everything happens at parties. “Success in Washington means access, and access requires contacts,” Gotlieb writes. “Here, the social event is the playing field where contacts are ‘won.’ ” Soon he and Sondra were cutting a swath through the so-
ONE LESSON: AVOID ‘CRISES CAUSED BY ASSHOLES IN OBSCURE POSITIONS IN OBSCURE AGENCIES5
cial scene. “Last night we dined at Joe Alsop’s [a long-time journalist and fabled host], the innermost of the inner sanctums of the Georgetown snobs,” states one typical entry. “We ate caviar, drank vodka, and had a swell time.” He also quickly learned to trust no one. There is a running concern through the diaries that the Americans had cracked a secret Canadian code and were intercepting embassy messages; plus, the embassy leaked like a sieve.
Meanwhile, the self-described “poor little
Canadian ambassador” shows little patience for the less-exalted functions of his post. When a well-lubricated audience in Halifax exhibited little interest in his discourse on protectionism in shipping, “I gave the bastards what they deserved. I read the whole speech slowly. And it was long and technical.” On an official trip to Knoxville, Tenn., he noted, “the Canadian entertainment was unspeakable. I wandered through a sea of unknown faces, repeating to myself, ‘You are the Canadian ambassador to the United States. Be polite. Be dignified. Smile. It’s worthwhile.’ ” When a journalist called it “scandalous” that he hadn’t invited visiting Canadian labour leaders to a reception, Gotlieb says, “I wanted to tell him to fuck off, but I just walked away.”
Some of Gotlieb’s controversial moves are now standard practice: for example, reach-
ing beyond the State Department and making Canada’s case directly to Congress. (For his early attempts, Gotlieb was accused of “meddling” in American affairs, and a congressman tried to have him recalled.) Likewise, he emphasized courting the anonymous yet powerful staffers on congressional committees, as well as prominent journalists. “I would never have dreamed of how important journalists are in Washington,” he writes. “My views were shaped by 20 years in Ottawa dealing with the semi-educated press corps there.”
One insight is particularly relevant today, as Canada faces post-9/ll security initiatives likely to complicate border crossings, threatening tourism and trade. Gotlieb observes that diplomatic disputes frequently arise not out of White House decisions, but from the rulings of faceless bureaucrats at federal agencies that Canadians neglect at their peril: “Crises caused not by the foreign policy of the United States but by the actions of assholes occupying obscure positions in obscure agencies.”
Gotlieb also pressed for using U.S. business groups to lobby lawmakers, a practice that has been crucial to managing the bor-
der issue: “No one cares a farthing if a foreign country comes whining at the door,” he says. “They do worry, however, if their own special interests whine. So to fight uranium import controls, alert the power utilities who will have to pay higher prices and urge them to lobby. To fight duties on subway cars, get the municipalities to squeal. To fight gas import controls, get the consumers to complain. They are worth 10 ambassadorial calls.” He also concludes that Canada has no “friends” in Washington, only “interests,” unlike other countries who have congressmen who espouse their position as a matter of their own political interests. “Israel has a constituency, Italy has a constituency, Greece has a constituency; Canada has none.” As a result, he presses Canada to hire lobbyists and consultants, like any other interest group.
Gotlieb’s diaries show early opposition to what has become the current policy of allowing provincial officials to press their own diplomatic case. In 1982, he advised Ontario premier Bill Davis, “Don’t lobby independently in Washington on acid rain or any other front. Keep your visiting officials on a tight leash. The Americans will triangulate for sure, and Canada will be the loser.” When Alberta premier Peter Lougheed visited Washington, Gotlieb implored him not to visit Congress alone. “The visits of [Quebec premier René] Lévesque and Lougheed signal that we are a divided country,” Gotlieb fretted. Nonetheless, Gotlieb admits the provinces have a point. After a meeting with Alberta cabinet ministers frustrated with Trudeau’s National Energy Program, Gotlieb writes, “I heard a recurring question: how can we trust you as ambassador in Washington to press our interests when the federal government is the servant of Eastern interests and you are the servant of the federal government? I told them that was bunkum— but it wasn’t.” Today, Alberta has its own envoy to Washington operating out of the embassy. Some rules are made to be broken. M
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