Chrétien in Chicago: The second draft of history

On Feb. 13, 2003, five weeks before the invasion of Iraq, Jean Chrétien gave a speech to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. He covered a few different topics: fiscal management, trade, foreign affairs.

First, Chrétien explained why he was bringing this message to this blue-chip audience, a group whose other guests that year included the chancellor of Germany, the president of Ireland and the Saudi foreign minister. “Let me begin with a few remarks on the Canadian economy. For, quite simply, it matters to your economy that ours does well: we consume 25% of your exports.”

Then he detailed Canada’s fiscal turnaround, in detail I needn’t imitate here, but part of his goal was to show that Canada pays off its debts:

“We have had five consecutive budget surpluses. We are predicting another budget surplus for this year and surpluses in the years after that. Canada is the only G-7 country in that position. Since 1997 we have paid down more than 10% of our market debt. And we are continuing year after year to pay down the debt.

“Our debt-to-GDP ratio has fallen from 71% to 49% over this period; and it continues to fall. The OECD predicts that in 2004 our debt to GDP ratio will be below that of the United States.”

As Canadians visiting the United States often do, he reminded his hosts that our country is an important customer and supplier — “in 2000, Canada bought more U.S. goods than all 15 countries of the European Union combined and three times as much as Japan” — not least for energy:

“We supply the United States, with 94% of your natural gas imports, close to 100% of your electricity of uranium for nuclear power generation. In 2002, Canada supplied the United States with 17% of its imported crude and refined oil products–more than any other foreign supplier, including Saudi Arabia. Canada’s oil sands contain 2.5 trillion barrels of oil, of which 315 billion barrels are recoverable with current technology. This surpasses the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia… The most important point I can make here is that we are a secure energy supplier you can count on.”

And then he moved, a little more delicately, to foreign affairs, and of course to Iraq.

War must always be the last resort, not only because of the human suffering it produces but also because of the inevitable unforeseen consequences. But if it must come to war, I argue that the world should respond through the United Nations. This is the best way to give legitimacy to the use of force in these circumstances. We must all be concerned about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And we all fully understand why action is required before it is too late. I argue, however, that the long-term interests of the United States will be better served by acting through the United Nations than by acting alone.

There was much more of this multilateral stuff before Chrétien moved on to the link between human development and security. “We must also recognize that long-term peace and security require not only better intelligence, or armed responses… For hundreds of millions of people, the main threats to their well-being are those of famine, disease, feeble economies, lack of educational opportunity, corrupt or inept governance, and regional conflicts.”

So, three messages: At home, Canada is a good customer and a key supplier of vital goods because it takes the management of its fiscal house seriously. Abroad, Canada urges caution in Iraq and multilateralism. Elsewhere, Canada urges all fortunate nations to look after less fortunate neighbours, because bad neighbourhoods can become dangerous ones.

The next morning Christie Blatchford wrote about Chrétien’s speech in the National Post.

“It sounded for all the world like a twist on the sort of dreamy nonsense you hear sometimes from Earth Mother-type dames,” she began, “like the woman in Eastern Ontario who recently berated her child’s school for including the word ‘gun’ in the Grade One curriculum.”

Blatch had heard only “unfettered smugness” in Chrétien’s speech, a “pious sort of a thing” that ended with an “offensive and not-so-veiled reference to ‘root causes’ as an explanation for Sept. 11.” She didn’t like his “unsubtle” reference to Canada’s oil reserves. She was furious at his reference to Canada’s health care system as a business advantage.

“‘In fact,’ he said, moving off his prepared text, ‘GM, Ford and Chrysler spend more money to health care than they pay for steel, and they’re making cars, so…’ So, what? That it costs the Big Three automakers less to buy raw material than it does to do business in Canada is a victory?”

(Part of Christie’s problem here was that she had precisely misunderstood Chrétien’s not-very-complicated point: he was arguing — no, saying in so many words — that it costs automakers less to do business in Canada because they can avoid a cost equivalent to their cost of raw material. But no matter. Properly understood, the comment would then surely have been deemed pious and unsubtle.)

She skipped over his argument about Iraq with little comment, apparently preferring to let him hang with his own words about multilateralism. She finished by quoting, in astonishment, his bits about the relationship between development and security.

“He reminded his listeners that ‘For hundreds of millions of people, the main threats to their well-being are those of starvation, disease, feeble economies, lack of educational opportunity, corrupt or inept governance, regional conflicts.’ A few seconds later came the kicker: ‘It is of course the right thing to do to advance human development in poor countries. But helping those people lift themselves out of poverty also advances our own security, prosperity and well-being.’

“Root causes, in the end, from the smarmy, morally superior self-styled little guy from Canada. He lived up to his own billing.”

I thought about Blatch’s column this week because another prime minister was making a visit to the United States. This prime minister, who decided very late indeed that the Iraq War was, as he called it during last fall’s televised leaders’ debate, “a mistake,” was bringing a few messages to his American hosts, although sadly not in any forum with the impact a speech to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations might have. Stephen Harper’s message was (1) that Canada is a good customer and steady supplier because we keep our fiscal and regulatory house in order, or did until recently; (2) that we have unsubtle quantities of natural resources for sale; (3) that Canada values multilateralism and the United Nations (almost Harper’s only high-level visit was to United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon).

I must have missed Christie’s column this week where she called Harper a dreamy, smug, pious, smarmy morally superior little guy. I’m sure it’s out there somewhere; consistency is important. As for the “root causes” business which so offended her, I’m afraid it’s everywhere. Joe Biden, who has managed to get himself elected Vice President of Christie’s beloved United States, said in Munich two weeks ago that “Poor societies and dysfunctional states can become breeding grounds for extremism, conflict and disease.” Of course, she cannot have known that in 2003. What she might have known, however, is that George W. Bush had by then already discussed “the poverty and hopelessness and lack of education and failed governments that too often allow conditions that terrorists can seize and try to turn to their advantage.” He did that in a speech in Monterrey, Mexico, that Chrétien cited in his Chicago speech. Chrétien could be unsubtle that way.