In The Media

Read and vote: Have Canada-U.S. relations hit a low point?

Featuring: Michael Kergin, Derek Burney, Colin Robertson, and Allan Gotlieb.

The Globe and Mail
February 27, 2015

The Debate

Have relations between the governments of Canada and the United States ever been this unfriendly? If so, is the chilling of relations Ottawa's or Washington's fault? This became a heated topic of diplomatic debate after Allan Gotlieb, Canada’s former ambassador to the United States, declared in an interview this week that "I think the relationship is as cool as I ever remember." Given that the 86-year-old ambassador’s career spans six decades, this suggests that the Harper and Obama administrations have damaged a historically strong relationship. We’ve assembled a group of diplomatic experts, including Mr. Gotlieb, to debate the implications; vote for the one you most agree with.


The Debaters

  • Michael Kergin: Ambassador to the U.S. from 2000-2005
    Crisis in communications at the heart of poor relations

  • Derek Burney: Ambassador to the U.S. from 1989-1993
    Blame the White House for poor relations

  • Colin Robertson: Former Canadian diplomat in the United States
    It's up to Canada to build and maintain the relationship

  • Allan Gotlieb: Ambassador to the U.S. from 1981 to 1989
    A 'striking lack of sensitivity' by the Obama administration


The Discussion

Michael Kergin: Stability in Canada and U.S. relations are often about contact and communication - at the highest level.

Sure, foreign relations, as Talleyrand famously said, are based on interests, not friendships. But interests must be furthered by access achieved through communication and dialogue. Our leaders don't need to be friends. But they do need to talk, and regularly.

When the Prime Minister and President can easily pick up the phone misunderstandings can be cleared, bureaucrats energized and collaboration constructed in confronting common challenges. After all, which President, during this time of terrorism, would not have a moment for the leader of the country which shares the longest border with his country, or the trading partner which provides his largest export market?.

Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan had their differences over acid rain; Jean Chrétien and Bill Clinton over Alaska's poaching Pacific Salmon and Helms Burton regarding the extraterritorial application of U.S. law; as did Mr. Chrétien and George W. Bush on softwood lumber and the overly protracted closing of the U.S. border to Canadian beef from the BSE scare.

Yet, even when Mr. Chrétien refused to join the coalition of the willing in Iraq, the phone lines stayed open. (The leaders did have serious issues to discuss, such as Canadian troops, replacing American forces, battling the Taliban). Sometimes the tone of their conversations became a touch testy, but they did talk.

Now, however, our two countries seem to be in an almost unprecedented situation of non communication at the level of their leaders. Aside from the occasional"pull asides" (diplo-speak for brief casual encounters at multilateral leaders' meetings), there is little evidence of Prime Minister Stephen Harper or President Barack Obama speaking directly with each other.

A recent dramatic example was the recent postponement of a scheduled North American Summit meeting to be held in Canada by the Prime Minister. Reneging on hosting the President of the United States must be a first in the Canada-U.S. relationship. It is singular evidence of the current crisis of communications between the two leaders.

The dean of Canada's Ambassadors to the United States, Allan Gotlieb, speaks of"coolness" and"distance" now afflicting Canada-US relations. These are excellent diplomatic terms covering what I assess to be a breakdown in dialogue between Mr. Harper and Mr. Obama.

Without good communication that enables access at the highest level, differences can become irritants, compounding the difficulty leaders have in resolving bilateral problems, even between countries as close as Canada and the United States. The Keystone XL pipeline is emblematic of a difference which has morphed into serious irritant.

The crisis of communication between Mr Harper and Mr. Obama, which to the outsider appears personal, has exacerbated some of these differences, rendering their resolution more complicated.

The good news is that the relationship between Canada is far greater than a pipeline, a bridge, or differences on how to deal with Israel and the U.S.-Iran nuclear negotiations. And the strength of the relationship will endure well beyond any coolness and distance between Mr. Harper and Mr. Obama.


Derek Burney: Alan Gotlieb is essentially correct in his assessment that relations between Canada and the US are cool."Cool" is of course diplomatic understatement. They are more like an Ottawa winter -in the deep freeze. And a thaw will only come when there is a change of administration following the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Whether the new president is a Democrat or Republican, there is nowhere to go but up. 

Mr. Gotlieb is also correct that we should not blame Canada. The fault lies with the White House, its indifference towards the interests of its key allies and neighbors, and its toxic relationship with Congress, which has caught Canada in the down draft on many issues, including the Keystone XL pipeline or our attempts to forge a common climate change strategy for North America. Mr. Obama has only spent nine hours in Canada during his six years in office. 

But we are not alone. Our Mexican friends are deeply frustrated with Washington on immigration and the management of their border. America's European and Asian allies have been wringing their hands in despair over Washington's lack of leadership as they contend with Vladimir Putin's"New Russia," the worsening crisis in Ukraine, and China's rise and assertions of territorial sovereignty in the South and East China Sea. 

Benign neglect is one thing, as is indifference but, when the actions of the Administration are punitive to Canadian interests without cause, that is malign arrogance unworthy of a neighbour and ally‎. 


Colin Robertson: In the conduct of Canada-US relations, Allan Gotlieb is the Obi-Wan Kenobi. Mr. Gotlieb, who turns 87 on Saturday, transformed Canadian diplomatic practice toward the U.S. in the wake of the Carter administration’s failure to ratify the East Coast Fisheries Agreement.

Rather than get mad, Mr. Gotlieb got smart. He ramped up our congressional relations efforts in Washington, recognizing that we could not count on the executive branch to deliver for us. Given our interests, we would have to do it ourselves and learn to play by Washington rules: drawing on lobbyists and lawyers to advance our interests. With the ambassador as quarterback we’d use all our assets, including our consulate network in the U.S., recognizing U.S. speaker Tip O’Neill’s dictum that"all politics is local."

Junior officers sent to our consulates now included congressional relations in their portfolio. I was one of those young officers, going to New York City and serving under Ken Taylor (whose heroism in Tehran made him a U.S. celebrity that Mr. Taylor subsequently used to advance our interests). 

As our ambassador in Washington from 1981-89, Allan and his wife, Sondra, revolutionized how we did business. Mr. Gotlieb’s lessons are contained in I’ll Be With You in a Minute, Mr. Ambassador. I kept a copy on my desk when posted to Washington to head the new Advocacy Secretariat in 2004. 

At its heart, the Gotlieb approach is activist problem-solving. First, you need to understand the United States. It’s more than a country – it’s a civilization. Second, advancing our interests means engagement at every level. 

The Gotlieb approach uses all our tools – political, defence and security, commercial-economic and cultural. Management of efforts is less by control, than co-ordination, mindful that the complexity of the relationship means it is like a chess game conducted on various levels: international issues of peace, security and economics; national issues of border, trade, energy and the environment; and regional and local issues involving the provinces and states and cities.

The bumps today are at the national level and responsibility is shared.

Stephen Harper’s relationship with Barack Obama is correct, but they do not appear to be confidants. Brian Mulroney argued that there is no more important relationship for Canadian prime ministers than that with the U.S. president.

Mr. Harper made the Keystone XL permit our overriding objective, seemingly on a take it or leave it basis. Unfortunately, of modern presidents, Barack Obama appears to have the least appreciation of the strategic importance of Canada to the U.S. He has not put the necessary effort into the neighbourhood, including Mexico, that it deserves. But as Alan Gotlieb understood and practised, like it or not, the initiative (in this case, action on climate) must come from Canada.


Allan Gotlieb: The Canada-U.S. relationship in the Obama era is different from what it was in the past. In earlier years, strains in the relationship arose as a result of Canadian policies or positions that the U.S. challenged or opposed as contrary to their interests. These could be bilateral in nature (energy and investment policies under Trudeau, nuclear and defence issues under Diefenbaker) or multilateral (Lester Pearson's criticism of U.S. bombing of Vietnam, Pierre Trudeau's allegations of"moral equivalency" between the U.S. and USSR during the Cold War). Given the extraordinary size and depth of the relationship, it is not surprising that the"irritants" often gave rise to serious tensions.

But they were usually resolved, thanks to the special relationship that existed between the two countries during the postwar era. This led to such agreements as the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement, the Auto Pact, major joint undertakings in continental defence, and ambitious nation-building projects such as the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Relations between the Obama Administration and Canada have, for the most part, been temperate and calm and relatively free of new"irritants". Canada has been strongly supportive of U.S. strategies on a global scale.

As a result, it can be said that in the Obama Era the relationship has been largely co-operative, cordial and correct. Nevertheless, something has been seriously missing that has led to a coolness and a sense of distance not characteristic of our relationship in earlier years. Notwithstanding the depth of our economic relations, the vast trade flows, the wide areas of cooperation and the management of our borders and security interests, what is missing during the Obama era is any sense that Canada occupies a special space in the foreign policy of the United States. History shows that in the time of Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan, and George Bush, Sr. there was a sensibility in the White House that the rules, as they related to the two countries, needed to be applied with particular regard to the affinity between our two nations arising from our common values.

With the possible exception of the free-trade agreement, no bilateral issue in the history of Canada-U.S. relations has exceeded in importance the building of the Keystone XL pipeline to bring Canadian oil to U.S. markets. Certainly none have ever occupied a larger place in the U.S. political process. It is remarkable that in dealing with this issue, the President has allowed the process of approval to extend over half a decade without results. It is even more remarkable that, in its various utterances, the White House has not demonstrated any recognition of the impact of their position on our historic joint energy relationship, our joint economic security interests and the uniquely integrated economic ties with the country with which they share a continent. This striking lack of sensitivity may or may not change under future Presidents. In all probability, the current state of distance in our relationship will come to be seen as anomalous. But, the implications for Canadian foreign policy are clear. In our trade and economic relations, Canada must diversify, diversify and diversify.

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