Supporting the U.S. yet acting independently is a tricky act for Canada
LUIZA CH. SAVAGEAugust62007
Common cause, at a distance
Supporting the U.S. yet acting independently is a tricky act for Canada
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
During his tour of Latin America last week, Stephen Harper told a group of business leaders in Santiago, Chile, that Canada’s “proud and independent” existence proves Latin Americans need not choose between “the syndrome of economic nationalism, political authoritarianism, and class warfare” or becoming “just like the United States,” whatever that means. The Prime Minister gave the impression of putting George W. Bush in the same basket with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and taking both out to the curb. But something more complex is going on as Canada launches a major new foreign policy engagement in Washington’s backyard. While he may have appeared to be distancing himself from Washington, behind the scenes he was growing closer.
A week before Harper set off on his weeklong tour of Colombia, Chile, Barbados and Haiti, where he announced trade agreements and other commitments, his ambassador to Washington, Michael Wilson, took a trip of his own—to a hotel in Crystal City, Va., where President George W. Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and four other U.S. cabinet ministers presided over a White House conference on the Americas. “I believe the Almighty implants in each soul great human potential. And it’s in our interest to help people realize their full potential,” said Bush, who showcased U.S.-funded public and private initiatives on education, health care, infrastructure, and micro-financing. Wilson was there to take notes, looking for initiatives that Canada could imitate, join, complement or be inspired by. “There is a lot of common ground that we should be able to till together,” said Wilson, who also convened dinners with Washington policy experts to pick their brains about what Canada could do in Latin America, and pronounced himself “encouraged” by the “enthusiasm” among the Washington policy elite for Canada’s new aggressive démarche in Latin America.
It’s all part of a bigger diplomatic picture. Since his arrival in Washington in March 2006, following bitter rows over the Iraq war, ballistic missile defence and softwood lumber, Wilson has made it an embassy priority to
explicitly seek out what he calls “common cause”—areas of potential co-operation around the world, from creating free markets to corralling loose nukes and rebuilding failed states—where Canada and the U.S. share the same broad goals. The Harper government wants to leave its stamp on the world stage, and along the way Wilson wants to show the White House and Congress that the bilateral relationship goes beyond merely managing a handful of grating irritants and can rise to the level of a “partnership” in the world.
“The Americans value friendships,” explains Wilson, up in his embassy office with its grand
view of the Capitol dome. And in a town where friends have been in dwindling supply, this approach is not unnoticed. Says a State Department official: “It’s exactly what we have wanted from Canada: a partner who will work with us together on the 96 per cent of international issues where our goals are the same: defeat terrorism, advance and consolidate democracy and good governance, prevent the proliferation of WMDs, promote economic development through open trade
and investment. We’ll of course always have the bilateral agenda to deal with, but I think the Harper government has sought to resolve those issues in a co-operative way, rather than just complaining out loud about them.”
Wilson plays down whatever cold calculations have led to his approach. “I wouldn’t put it in the sense of being a grand strategy,” he says, “but a natural progression of policy thinking.” It doesn’t hurt that some of the congressional committees that deal with Canadian issues have as their bailiwick the entire Western Hemisphere. If Canada can engage on issues of primary interest to them, it gains attention and entree for its own priorities. And it’s no secret that when Condoleezza Rice meets with Peter MacKay, global issues ranging from nuclear non-proliferation to the Middle East are at the top of her agenda.
The most visible “common cause” between
Canada and the U.S. is, of course, Afghanistan, and Canada’s NATO role there is routinely recognized. “When I go to see people on the Hill, more often than not they will make reference to the great work our men and women are doing in Afghanistan. So, yes, it does help,” says Wilson. “I’ve had it said to me very bluntly by members of the administration that where we do work together is very definitely noticed by them.”
But “common cause” is not just a sales job
for Washington consumption. There are things Canada can do on the world stage that the United States, at this moment in history, simply can’t. “They are the superpower and we aren’t,” Wilson said in a speech in Toronto last January. “That makes the range and possibilities available to the United States in shaping the international agenda very different from those available to Canada. That has its advantages, but also its disadvantages.”
Latin America is a case in point. In Colombia, Canada can help work toward conciliation between former paramilitaries and rebels, a task made complicated for the U.S. since it has a heavy military involvement in the country. Canada also has an advantage
in promoting good governance and institution-building. When Mexico was designing its electoral commission, advice and assistance that was welcome from Canada would have been threatening coming from Washington. Both Canada and the U.S. want to steer the region toward democracy, but it’s easier for Canada to talk about freedom and human rights than it is for Bush, who is criticized for his own record. “Canada doesn’t carry that baggage, not nearly to the extent that the U.S. does,” says Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank on Western Hemisphere affairs, and one of the experts who Wilson has invited to the embassy.
And given that Bush is not a noted multilateralist, Canada could take on a crucial role in hemispheric co-operation, from pushing a hemisphere-wide trading area to the strengthening of the Organization of American States. “That’s a role that Canada can take on with greater credibility than the U.S. at this point,” said Hakim.
There are numerous other areas where Canada is working in tandem: Canada has actively pushed other countries to follow the U.S. lead on dealing with Iran; it has been pressing a market-based approach to energy development into international texts and agreements; and has taken a leadership role in an initiative by G8 countries to help destroy
stockpiles of nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union and to dispose of fissile material from nuclear-powered submarines.
But Wilson insists Canadians need not worry that their foreign policy will reflect anything but Canada’s national interest. When Canada looked to see what it could do in Latin America, it was natural to look and see what the Americans were doing, he says. Even Canadians who disagree with some Bush policies in the world would be heartened by what he saw at the White House conference, Wilson insists. “I’d be surprised if there were one per cent of Canadians who were aware of these various initiatives by the U.S.—good things, positive things that Canadians instinctively support and agree with,” says Wilson. “I don’t think there is anything I heard that people in Canada would be upset about.” Wilson notes that Bush himself has made 11 trips to the region.
But as Canada more visibly and explicitly goes down this path, it will have to walk a fine line—parallel to the American one perhaps, but always at an arm’s length. “For Canada to really be credible in establishing a policy toward Latin America and other regions of the world, it can support the United States, but it has to show it is acting independently as well... that it’s not doing this to pander to the U.S. or gain a closer relationship,” says Hakim. Judging by his remarks in Santiago, Stephen Harper got that memo, and Washington is not complaining. M
THERE ARE THINGS CANADA CAN DO ON THE WORLD STAGE THAT THE UNITED STATES SIMPLY CANT
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