Michael Wilson on mattering in Washington - Macleans.ca

Michael Wilson on mattering in Washington

The outgoing ambassador to the U.S. says Canada must think and speak on “a global basis”


090903_wilsonToday’s issue of Maclean’s features an interview with Michael Wilson, Canada’s outgoing Ambassador to the United States. I interviewed Wilson by telephone a few days ago about his nearly 3 ½ years in Washington, after last week’s surprising appointment of just-resigned Manitoba premier Gary Doer as his successor.

Wilson is no showboat. I couldn’t lure him into talking about Washington-after-hours, which was so much the story of Canada’s D.C. mission back in the 1980s, when Allan Gotlieb was ambassador there. But if Wilson wasn’t dishing on the social swirl, he was bracingly interesting on weightier questions about how Canadians can make an impact in the world’s most competitive diplomatic environment.

In particular, he didn’t hesitate to warn that by pulling out of combat in Afghanistan in 2011, as planned, Canada will lose what has been “the best calling card” he had when it came to winning a respectful hearing from the Americans, whether Republicans or Democrats.

He emphatically, repeatedly suggested that the federal government and Parliament “will have to address” the issue of how to manage the withdrawal so that it doesn’t hurt Canada’s reputation, not only with the U.S. government, but within NATO. He was diplomatic enough to stop short of advising the decision be revisited, but he did say Ottawa should consider other security missions abroad to maintain the standing Canada has won through its military commitment in Kandahar.

To my ear, he was even more interesting on a broader question of how a smallish country like Canada can be influential in a world capital like Washington. He said the best way to be taken seriously is to reliably offer top-level American officials “a better understanding” of where the U.S. fits on a given issue “from the Canadian standpoint.”

Yes, that’s right—offer understanding. Context. Intelligent analysis. Independent perspective. Not horse-trading. Not you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours deals. And this from a guy who is the farthest thing from a Pearsonian romantic when it comes to foreign policy. Wilson is a stolid, practical, Conservative fellow, not a soft-power dreamer.

Yet he argues that to matter in a world capital, Canada’s representatives need to think and speak on “a global basis.” Only after we’ve established our capacity to offer constructive insights on the big picture can we expect progress on narrower bilateral issues to come “more quickly.”

In other words, we don’t have to choose between being hard-headedly focused on national interests and big-heartedly concerned about international issues. In fact, we can’t separate the two categories. It’s only when we understand the world, and can communicate useful ideas about what’s happening out there, that any pleas for attention to our own preoccupations will be recognized.

Even in the generous swath of question-and-answer we offer in the feature Maclean’s interview each week, there’s not space for everything. From the Wilson interview, we edited out an observation he made about the changing perspective of Americans on their own place in the world. Here’s what he had to say:

“ I’ve observed both with the Bush administration, and now more prominently in the Obama administration, a recognition that the United States is not the superpower that can just decide what should be done. They have to work more closely and take collaborative decisions with allies, with other countries that are affected, and recognize that this is a more collaborative, multi-polar world.

“There still is the United States as the major superpower – no one is close at this point with them – but the other countries, we hear about the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – they’re all coming up.  And there are other countries in the world that are improving their international standing as well. So it is a different world that we’re coming into, and we have to recognize and plan, strategize, as to where does Canada fit into all of this, and that’s I think a challenge for the new ambassador but it’s primarily a challenge for the government.”

At at moment when Americans have come to better appreciate their need for capable, sophisticated allies, Canada should never have to feel sidelined. But to play, we need to bring to every world forum an informed, coherent understanding of world affairs. Whether we currently display anything approaching that sort of confidence—on top-of-mind issues like climate change and Afghanistan’s future—is a troubling question.

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Michael Wilson on mattering in Washington

  1. "In particular, he didn't hesitate to warn that by pulling out of combat in Afghanistan in 2011, as planned, Canada will lose what has been “the best calling card” he had when it came to winning a respectful hearing from the Americans, whether Republicans or Democrats."

    Involving ourselves in a war, where our own soldiers and many civiliians are maimed and killed, is never something that should be done for prestige, standing or reputation.

    Either it's the right thing to do, or it's not. And that's a judgment that should be made in the context of Afghanistan's interests, and our own *as they relate to our desired outcome in Afghanistan*.

    That our standing in Washington might have any bearing on our involvement in a war is something that ought to disgust us.

    • "Involving ourselves in a war, where our own soldiers and many civiliians are maimed and killed, is never something that should be done for prestige, standing or reputation."

      That's not how the elite see it. Wars are simply "calling cards" that make their lives easier. Since they never do the killing or the dying or even pay for them, how else should they see it?

      Michael Wilson is disgusting.

      • Anon
        You're comment on Michael Wilson is, frankly, disturbing. Mr. Wilson has served Canadians with distinction for many years. He was possibly the finest, most capable Finance Minister prior to Paul Martin. As well, Anon, you have a hopelessly naive (re: NDP) take on world events.

        • Enlighten me, e_ron. What's the exchange rate on human lives for status in Washington? I'd hate to see us pull out of Afghanistan a few hundred casualties short of their inner circle.

        • Anon, Wilson is doing his job. It is his job to see the war in Afghanistan as a calling-card to the Americans. If he had anything whatsoever to do with the war in Afghanistan, that would be a very troubling thing. But he doesn't, so that's okay (although I agree it is disturbing to see in black and white like that)

          e_ron, you are doing that thing whereby if you don't like what someone says, attack the someone, not what he said. They call that ad hominem, I believe, and you should perhaps look it up. But as to the substance of the complaint, please explain why naivete/idealism is a bad thing. Why is it better to be so cynical you bring about the very things that the idealists then complain about? SeanStock is bang on, which Anon was agreeing with, in that a commitment to war should be about right and wrong, not scoring points or taking advantage. Only the cynic would go to war because there's something in it for him.

        • "the finest and most capable finance minister" ! ? You have got to be kidding, What colour is the sky in your Conservative world ?

          • Just telling it like it is. Glad you aren't using an ad hominem…..

    • I find myself wondering if "conservative" is code for some affliction, not unlike narcissism.

    • Unofrtunately for you,we do not live on an island where you pretend there aren`t any problems and you ignore what`s going on around you.It`s called war,people do die.We need people to fight.You want to live in your supposedly perfect world,but you do not want to do what it takes to preserve it..You would not be here spouting your crap if somebody else had not sacrificed themselves for your freedom with their blood.There will always be war,there always has been war and there still is,none of that 'make love not war' nonsense will stop it.A country has to be defended and if your allies need help,you jump in.If you sit back like duck and let things be,first your allies will be gone and then guess what,you are next.The what?You will probably protest against the guys who are defending you.If you do not help others,good luck getting any cooperation.

      I know why people like you never join the military,it`s not that you are scared of dying,you wouldn`t know who to shoot at.
      What kind of a mess would we be in if everybody had your views?

    • I agree that this characteristic should not be used to assess our involvement in Afghanistan, either when we got involved or now, when we are talking about whether or not to stay involved.

      But there is nothing wrong with being aware of this characteristic.

  2. I had to pause and re-read the section about the dead Canadian soldiersin Afganistan serving as "calling cards" before I could believe it. Did our ambasador to Washington really say that? Of course, I know that this is how the political elite truly see things, but to come out and say it in public? How incredibly unprofessonal.

    • I'll forgive the unprofessionalism – this truth is worth hearing.

  3. I believe all of you are taking Michael Wilson's comments wildly out of context. I don't know the man personally, but seriously doubt that he views soldiers as callously as his comments are being interpreted.

    I suspect his underlying belief is that we should stay the course in Afghanistan because he he thinks it's the right thing to do, and that this will have an added benefit of allowing is to engage more fully in Washington.

    • "In particular, he didn't hesitate to warn that by pulling out of combat in Afghanistan in 2011, as planned, Canada will lose what has been “the best calling card” he had when it came to winning a respectful hearing from the Americans, whether Republicans or Democrats."

      I generally respect Wilson, but that's a turd that cannot be polished.

      • I am not disagreeing with how bad the quote looks. However note that the only part of that phrase in quotes is "the best calling card".

        For all we know, the direct quote was "Our Canadian soliders have fought valiantly for a very important cause. In addition to helping the Afghan people, it has improved our reputation in Washington. As the US increases their presence in Afghanistan, we will lose the best calling card we have in Washington"

        Or perhaps he was responding to a direct question from Geddes – eg "Will Canada's withdrawal from Afghanistan decrease our relevance in Washington?"

        I think having a full transcript of the interview would shed some light here.

        • Absolutely fair enough.

          But since our initial deployment in Afghanistan, there's been a tacit understanding that it partly involved smoothing over American rage over our refusal to join in Iraq. I'm not saying that's the only justification, but it's always been a consideration (along with NATO obligations).

          I simply find it unacceptable to get involved in wars for political reasons. If a war is necessary, we should do what we need to do. But surely we've passed the age when blood is shed as a by-product of old men playing games of pride and one-upmanship?

    • perhaps YYZ, but that is not what he appeared to have said if it is what he thought. (and there was nothing that prevented him from saying what he actually though).

  4. "…to bring to every world forum an informed, coherent understanding of world affairs." That is a potent argument for replacing Harper & Co.

  5. Agree wholeheartedly with your entire post.

  6. Canadians went off to the Great War, called optimistically "The War to end all Wars", and of course later "World War I" from its beginning in 1914. The United States only entered the First World War in 1917, after Canadians had already been dying in it for almost three years.

    September 1, 1939 was the first day of World War II for Canada. Yet our American cousins only chose to enter the fray more than two years later.

    Even then, they were not marching in to battle so they could help their northern neighbors, but instead to protect their own soil after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In fact, had Pearl Harbor not been bombed, there is a very real possibility the United States might not have fought in the second World War at all.

    Why do people think it is OK for Americans to decide whether or not they want to fight in our wars, but that Canadians look bad if we don't fight in American Wars?

    Although I wasn't exactly of a fan of Prime Minister Chrétien, he impressed me by keeping Canadians out of the Iraq War.

    Canadians should have stayed home from Afghanistan. We have Canadian war dead not because Canada felt the need to fight in a just war, but because Canadian politicians felt the need to appease the United States.

    Politicians like Michael Wilson may have an easier time getting Americans to like them by virtue of thoughtlessly following the U.S. off to war, but Americans would more likely respect us if our politicians and ambassadors were confident enough to actually stand up for Canada.

    • I agree entirely. No country yet has been able to prevail in any war in Afghanistan, from the British Empire to the Soviet Union, and now the combined forces of the USA, Canada, some Nato, some British. In my view, this is a country which cannot be conquered or even, as long as the warped mullahs reign supreme, become civilized. Any regime which treats women as chattels because of a religion needs dragging into the 21st century, however due to the aforementioned folks in charge(and do not be misled that they are not)I I cannot see this happening. Read your history books!

  7. Mr Wilson wants us to stay in the Big A or get dirty somewhere else – Must be why we ordered so many of those big planes – Might need them in 2013 anyways?

    It is going to be interesting how CanDoer does in Washington!

  8. We should withdraw from anywhere our soldiers will die because the whole point of soldiering is to not take on tasks that could potentially result in death. After assuming a totally pacifist stance, we should reassume our moral superiority and lecture the world on things we have no first-hand knowledge of. Oh, we should also ignore that geographic proximity to the US and our historically proximity to Great Britain are the two main reasons anyone even pays attention to us — when they bother to.

    Put up or shut up.

  9. Gfield,

    The thing that frustrates me about most Canadians is we measure ourselves entirely by the US – everything from our standard of living, to our art, to our thinking on where stand in the world. Ask anyone around you what it means to be Canadian, and their answer will always use a comparison – IE we are "more" open – and that comparison always and only references the US.

    Another example, we Canadians often pride ourselves on our knowledge of the world, but if you peel back the onion, all we are really only saying is, "Canadians know about the US; the US doesn't know about Canada; therefore Canadians are "more" aware of international affairs. This comes from a core Canadian belief that the US is the standard for everything.

    Why do I say all this? Because it is not true that we are only recognized due to physical location next to the US, or ties to the UK. I work internationally, have worked in over 20 countries, Canadians are recognized for who we are. We stand on our own in the eyes of the world.

    You know about Denmark, I'm sure: How environmental it is, its nice mix of socialism and capitalism, the recent banking collapse. This is a country of 5.5 million yet it is in the news enough. Guess what – Canada is too.

    Fortunately the world doesn't yet know that we have a sever lack of self esteem. It's only Canadians that say things like "51st State". We do it to ourselves. Fortunately, just because the US ignores us, it doesn't mean Singapore ignores us.

    The US is not the standard for everything. They are not the best at everything. Their conservatives are not that like our conservatives. They don't have more interesting lives than us.

    Let's all leave the US behind. Stop the comparisons. We are only comparing to what they project in movies anyway. Let's stop trying to be noticed by them. Who cares. Let's be ourselves. Let's support our own stuff. Let's stop thinking someone has 'made it' if they become popular in the US. In general, let's just play a lot less attention to them.

  10. I am not surprised to see all these comments here.The military is denigrated.Patriotism does not exist.There is no culture at all,unless you consider anti-Americanism and watching American television shows.And then turning around ask Americans to visit Canada.Even the Royal family is denigrated,I don`t know anybody who reveres the the Queen,but you expect immigrants to do that.Every war is trashed and there is always this 'who cares' attitude to everything.Even on Canada Day,everyone goes to work!

    I`m` yet to find out why they think they are better than Americans when they don`t do anything with themselves,yet they want to lecture you on things they know nothing about.Anyone who wants to decent career moves elsewhere to make something of themselves.What a country.

  11. Actually, I think Canadians have fantastic and fascinating culture, it's very diverse across all the provinces, and all very unique from much of the US – but the problem is we don't recognize it in ourselves.

  12. What a pity! And we agree to be represented by those kind of selfish and narow minded politicians.