Didn’t we used to be friends?

Hillary Clinton knows Stephen Harper has trouble getting Barack Obama’s attention

Didn’t we used to be friends?

Sean Kilpatrick / CP

Nobody remembers the act that appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show after Elvis Presley. After the kid with the guitar, nothing else could leave much of an impression.

Similarly, whatever history records about Derek Burney, it will pay scant heed to the speech he gave at the big Liberal thinkers’ conference in Montreal over the weekend. Burney used to run the Prime Minister’s Office for Brian Mulroney. He was Canada’s ambassador to Washington from 1989 to 1993. He led Stephen Harper’s transition to power in 2006. But on Sunday he drew the short straw and spoke after a barnburning speech by Bob Fowler, the retired former ambassador who accused both Harper and the Liberals of selling out the country’s best diplomatic traditions. Coming after that broadside, Burney was all but ignored.

Too bad. Burney had useful things to say about Canada-U.S. relations. He devoted nearly half his remarks to the dangers of passivity and timidity, urging leaders not to “hestitate to lead,” calling for “confidence” over “reticence,” preferring a “vigorous, creative and active approach” over “risk-averse, correct stewardship” in a bilateral relationship that “should be stimulated and led by the prime minister.”

I buttonholed Burney after the speech. Was this a critique of the current government?

He broke into a wide smile. “Don’t put words in my mouth, Paul.” Fair enough. Derek Burney was not talking about Stephen Harper when he warned against hesitation, reticence, risk aversion and lack of leadership. He was speaking in the abstract. You cannot get me to say otherwise.

I, on the other hand, am a free agent, so nothing is stopping me from saying that the Canada-U.S. relationship under Harper has begun to go quietly, seriously, off the rails.

That was obvious during Hillary Clinton’s visit to Ottawa, when the secretary of state filed her request for an extended Canadian deployment in Afghanistan with a succession of television interviewers. Fortunately, Lawrence Cannon was also on Clinton’s distribution list. But our hapless foreign minister has long since blown his claim to exclusive access to news from Washington.

Clinton’s visit also included a meeting in Cannon’s riding of foreign ministers from five countries with significant Arctic waterfronts—Canada, the U.S., Russia, Norway and Denmark. But there’s already a forum for discussing Arctic issues. It’s the Arctic Council, and it includes more countries, and Aboriginal groups as well. Joe Clark thought it up when he was Brian Mulroney’s foreign minister. Mulroney, and then Jean Chrétien, spent years talking the Americans into participating.

Now Harper’s Canada has lost interest in the Arctic Council, which would not be a big deal if we could only refrain from inviting the Americans to more exclusive clubs to which they don’t want to belong. “Significant international discussions on Arctic issues should include those who have legitimate interests in the region,” Clinton said. “And I hope the Arctic will always showcase our ability to work together, not create new divisions.” That’s a dig at Harper’s Arctic sovereignty agenda, which puts an unrealistic emphasis on battles we can’t win, like arguing with the Americans over control of navigation in the Northwest Passage, instead of on useful work we can do with the Americans in the Arctic.

On Afghanistan and Pakistan, it’s now seven months since Richard Holbrooke, Clinton’s envoy to the region, asked Cannon personally to name a Canadian government representative to work in Holbrooke’s office.

Cannon still hasn’t named anyone.

That kind of stewardship helps explain why Clinton shopped her post-2011 Afghanistan request around to the networks. She must have read that Cannon has trouble finding time to read his mail. She must have wanted to make sure somebody in Canada got her message.

I should emphasize that relations between Harper’s government and Obama’s are perfectly cordial. The two leaders run into each other frequently, seem to enjoy each other’s company, and are not engaged in any toxic feuds. But Harper is careful not to trouble Obama with any ideas or projects. If Canadian troops leave Afghanistan in 2011, that will be a manageable disappointment for the Americans. But Harper has no replacement project that would get Obama’s attention or fire his imagination.

Before Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, a Harper staffer told me their first summit would be refreshingly devoid of ideas from the Canadian side. “He’s the new guy, not us,” the adviser said. “We’re going to hear him out.” Other leaders, like Mexican President Felipe Calderón, were less reticent. It’s Calderón, not Harper, who has become the Americans’ most active partner on energy and environmental files.
Of course there was limited room for progress while Obama’s attention was consumed, domestically, with health care reform. But now Obama has passed his health care bill. His presidency has made a new start. Clinton’s visit this week was a chance to reboot the cross-border relationship along with it. And we blew this chance too.

“We will be unable to get the U.S. administration on board unless whoever is in the White House and leading members of Congress value and respect what our Prime Minister brings to the table,” a keen observer of Canada-U.S. relations has said. “Forward movement in Canada-U.S. relations is the best way to ensure that our bilateral relations do not stagnate.”

Derek Burney can’t get in trouble for those quotes. I got them from a speech Stephen Harper delivered in the House of Commons in 2002.