In The Media

Canada has to master the complexity of the U.S. political system

by Allan Gotlieb, Michael Kergin and Colin Robertson 

The Globe and Mail
August 7, 2012 

In three months we will wake up to see who Americans have elected as president, to the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate. We will be deeply affected by the results, whatever the political stripe of those who occupy the White House and take control of the two houses of Congress. Like it or not, Canadians do have a “dog in this hunt.” Geography, history, economics and culture have created a deep integration that goes far beyond a typical foreign relationship.

Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser to George W. Bush, captured it well when she said, “Here come the Canadians with their condominium issues.” Not meant as a compliment, it was uttered in frustration at what administration officials felt was the picayune nature of the issues that we were bringing to the table. They were “domestic” – trade and commerce, transportation, energy and the environment, rather than the traditional statecraft of war and peace.

In terms of Canada’s national interests, however, the important issues are the picayune ones that deal with pipelines, dams, bridges, beef, lumber and the quality of the air we breathe and water we drink. This is a tribute to the maturity of a relationship in which it’s been almost 200 years since we last fired shots at each other. Would that the rest of the world had reached this stage of what Franklin D. Roosevelt described as “good neighbourliness.”

It is true, of course, that our relative dependence is asymmetrical – we depend on the United States as a market much more than it depends on us. But it is also true that we are their biggest foreign market – and there is nothing picayune about that.

Three inescapable truths emerge from our high degree of integration:

  1. Most Canada-U.S. conflicts emerge as a result of the U.S. domestic, not foreign policy, agenda.
  2. Their outcome derives from the uniquely American doctrine of the separation of powers, the Congress being primus inter pares. Our diplomacy must be based on these constitutional realities but also on the equally important truth – to borrow from Lord Palmerston – that in the Congress of the United States, Canada has no permanent friends, only permanent interests.
  3. The initiative will almost always lie with Canada to make sure the issue is on the White House agenda.

More than any other country, Canada has to master the complexity of the U.S. political system. Unless we do, little progress will be made on most issues. There are too many players (every congressman a foreign minister), too many special interests, too many bureaucrats, too many lobbyists at the doors of Congress and the White House, too fragmented a power structure and too much truth in Tip O’Neill’s dictum that “all politics is local.”

Although the party affiliation of U.S. legislators or officials can sometimes be important, it becomes far less so than the sensitivities and skills with which the major issues in the relationship are handled.

For all these reasons, we need to take the long view in determining whether our challenges are being successfully met. Relationships are vital, especially between the president and prime minister, but narrowly defined special interests can sometimes trump the national interest. No better example can be found than the devastating softwood lumber dispute, which originated in Ronald Reagan’s first term and has continued for 30 years and counting. It took about a decade for our prime minister to persuade the same president and his successor to reverse his country’s position on acid rain. A protectionist tariff on shakes and shingles imposed by the U.S. almost derailed free-trade negotiations. Yet, as Brian Mulroney demonstrated, Canada never had a friend in the White House greater than Ronald Reagan.

Today there is frustration with President Barack Obama’s unfortunate decision to punt the Keystone XL Pipeline permit until after the election, but like shakes and shingles, this had everything to do with U.S. domestic politics rather than the national interest. Canada was collateral damage, which may yet prove temporary. Fortunately, on the issue of border access, which is of great strategic importance to Canada and on which the President has staked out a leadership role, we seem to be making steady, if slow, progress. When it works, that is how it works.

For a foreign power, the challenge of dealing with Congress is even more difficult. We tend to be treated as just another special interest, but one that cannot contribute to campaigns. As far as the White House is concerned, Canada is usually not seen as a problem. But this means we are rarely, if ever, top of mind. It is doubtful that an American president, who begins each day with a national security briefing, spends an hour a year thinking about Canada.

So we work the system, using all our access points, starting with our able ambassadors. But regardless of the frustrations, experience tells us that the best card that any Canadian prime minister has to play is his ability to talk directly to the president and engage him in those picayune condominium issues that come with sharing a continent. 

Allan Gotlieb and Michael Kergin are former Canadian ambassadors to the United States and senior advisers at Bennett Jones LLP. Colin Robertson is vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and senior adviser to McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP.

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