WASHINGTON – Four former ambassadors to the United States have some thoughts about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s three-day visit to Washington this week, where he’ll be feted at the first state dinner for a visiting Canadian in 19 years.
They were asked by The Canadian Press whether they had any advice for the prime minister on diplomacy; on what issues he should raise; and on how to handle questions about the unusual American election currently underway.
—Derek Burney: The leaders should start pressing their bureaucracies toward deals for enhanced co-operation in the Arctic, starting with environmental protection: “There’s a lot of potential. But it needs to be prodded from the top, or it won’t happen,” he said. Trudeau should be careful not to make commitments on climate change that the U.S. can’t keep. Good relations with a U.S. president are an indispensable asset — and he says Trudeau is off to a good start with Obama. But he’s skeptical of anything too substantial happening now, as U.S. politics is already in election mode. He says the media will pressure Trudeau to say things about the election and Republican frontrunner Donald Trump: “My strong advice to him would be to stay away from it.”
—Raymond Chretien: “Start thinking beyond this (period and) about the post-Obama era. … At the dinner, I’m sure there will be influential senators. Identify the influential actors in American politics and start building relations with them. This visit, it couldn’t even happen in three or four months. It’s essentially the final hour (of Obama). Start thinking about after. … We have to live with the Americans, whoever’s in power.” He also offers a warning, based on his own experience. In 2000, he says, some media interpreted his non-verbal communication as suggesting a preference for Al Gore over George W. Bush. All he was doing, he says, was delivering a talk to Canadian federal officials and listing a few basic observations about either candidate. His advice now: “Don’t get involved in American politics. Don’t take sides in your words, don’t take sides in your moves, don’t takes sides with your smile. Don’t take sides — period… My advice would be to be very careful — it’s not just words, but everything. The whole demeanor.”
—Michael Kergin: Recalls how some media made hay of relatively innocuous comments by his predecessor, comparing Bush and Gore. Says there’s a safe way to avoid a repeat: “Stay well out of any election comments. (Just say), ‘Canada respects the decision of the American electorate and will get along with whomever they choose to occupy the White House.'”
—Frank McKenna: “It is always good to have a strong personal relationship with the president of the United States, no matter what point in the election cycle. This is a highly visible event that will be noticed as a proxy for the closeness of the Canada- U.S. relationship. It also is an excellent opportunity to finalize the (country-of-origin meat-labeling) dispute and kickstart the softwood lumber negotiations. There are many other irritants and closer border initiatives that can be dealt with as well.”