Real change in Canada-US relations

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Thank you to Canada 2020 for inviting me here today to speak with you all. Canada 2020 has been a strong generator of progressive policy since its inception, and it’s always great to participate in your events. Thank you all for being here, as well. And thank you for the kind introduction, Tim.

I love this time of year in Ottawa. That brief period between the blowing snow and sweltering heat that we call June. There’s always a sense of excitement in the air as Canada Day approaches. The politicians leave. People from all over Canada pour in to celebrate their country’s birthday.

It is time for the absurd spectacle of a hectoring, belligerent Canada – that has defined the Harper Decade – to come to an end. It’s time for real change.
-Justin Trudeau

South of the border — and indeed, across the street at the US Embassy — similar activities are underway. Americans pause for picnics and fireworks, hot dogs and baseball games. The proximity of these two events on the calendar ought to give us cause to reflect on how much more we share in common with our friends to the south.

We think of ourselves as young countries. New countries, even. Yet, Canada will be 148 this year. The US will be 239. We have a long history together. A history that of course extends back far before either of our countries’ official birth date.

For our American cousins, the relationship is consequential. For us, it has often been definitional. Prime Ministers and governments are commonly and rightly judged by how they foster that relationship for the greater common good. From John A. Macdonald’s deft management of fishing rights to Mike Pearson’s negotiation of the Auto-Pact, from free trade to abstention from the Iraq War – management of Canada-US relations is among the largest markers by which history remembers our leaders.

This is how it should be.

The Canada-US relationship has changed over the years. We Canadians are more confident about ourselves than we have ever been. People from my generation, in particular, see no contradiction between a strong national identity and an economic interdependence that brings greater prosperity to all of us. But the Canada-US relationship is no less definitional for us today than it was 100 years ago.

A former Prime Minister – and not the one you think – once said to me that the PM has three big responsibilities:

  • Grow the economy;
  • Unify the country; and
  • Successfully manage our relationship with the United States.

As with most sweeping statements, you can quibble with that one, but there’s a deep and important truth embedded in it. Successful Prime Ministers get the big things right. And Canada’s relationship with the United States of America is — beyond the shadow of a doubt — one of the biggest.

Here is how another Prime Minister put it.

“Given our common values and the political, economic and security interests that we share with the United States, there is now no more important foreign policy interest for Canada than maintaining the ability to exercise effective influence in Washington so as to advance unique Canadian policy objectives”

That was actually Stephen Harper back in 2003.

So, at the end of the Harper Decade, let us judge the Prime Minister by his own yardstick and ask a few simple questions:

Is Canada’s relationship with the United States better or worse than it was when Harper took office?

Does Canada have more or less influence in Washington than we did when Harper became Prime Minister? And, what kind of success has Harper had in exercising “effective influence in Washington to advance unique Canadian policy objectives?”

I believe the answers to those basic questions are clear: worse, less and little.

I believe the root cause of these failures has more to do with Mr. Harper’s diplomatic approach than with a weakening of the shared interests that unite our countries. We have never had so much to gain by having a strong, resilient relationship with the United States. Unfortunately, the foreign policy of Mr. Harper and his Conservative Ministers has been coloured by the divisive and hyper partisan style that has become their trademark. As a result, they’ve badly misread the new context in which we’re operating and they’ve missed important opportunities to cooperate with the US to find solutions to major issues like climate change.

It’s hard to remember that it even happened now, but one of President Obama’s first acts of foreign policy was to sign a cooperation agreement with Canada on energy, and the environment.

Harper has had more than 6 years to build that opportunity into real progress on an issue that will define our economic success as a nation. Yet, all would agree we are no further ahead on that than we were on the one day President Obama spent here in Ottawa.

Now, everybody knows I have consistently supported the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Opening global markets to Canadian goods and resources is a fundamental responsibility of the Prime Minister. However, I have also said — from the beginning of my leadership — that KXL would never be built unless we put strong environmental policy in place. Specifically, I said that until we found a way to responsibly and effectively price carbon, the Americans would delay, defer and eventually decline.

The simple fact is that in 2015, pretending that we have to choose between the economy and the environment is as harmful as it is wrong, at home and abroad. It’s not just a good idea to have sound environmental policy; it’s good business. As we all know, Mr. Harper has taken a different approach – an approach that says economic development and environmental responsibility can’t be reconciled. An approach that’s quite simply breathtaking.

Rather than working constructively to find solutions to the bigger issues, Mr. Harper narrowed the context further. The Prime Minister of Canada went to New York and tried to publicly bully the President of the United States into saying yes. And if he refused, no problem, Mr. Harper would just wait for the next President.

Occasionally, we have had frosty relationships between the Prime Minister and the President. Everybody knows that my father and President Nixon weren’t exactly the closest of friends. Kennedy and Diefenbaker definitely weren’t fishing buddies. But it is hard to imagine any Prime Minister in the history of this country pulling Harper’s fruitless stunt.

Nor was it a one-off tactic. From the famous ‘no-brainer’ comment in 2011 to the endless stream of Ministers who went to the US to lecture the Obama administration, this was Harper’s strategy. And it is his failure.

In the end, it’s not really about Keystone. It’s about judgment. It’s about the narrowness that allowed one project in one industry — however large and important the project and industry — to define one of the most positive and prosperous bilateral relationships the world has ever known. All of us, Canadians and Americans alike, are the poorer for it.

The problem is not just Harper’s antagonistic style of diplomacy. His hyper-partisan approach also means he is unable to work constructively with people who do not share his ideology, whether that person is President of the United States or Premier of Ontario. Does anyone doubt that Harper would have taken a different approach with a Republican in the White House?

Let me be crystal clear on this point. I’m proud to lead a party that has worked well with Presidents of both parties to advance our shared interests. That’s because we Liberals understand something very important that Harper and his party have forgotten: Canada’s relationship with the United States transcends partisanship.

Canadians and Americans have important differences, but we are cut from the same cloth. We have the longest, most peaceful and mutually beneficial relationship of any two countries since the birth of the nation-state. We have known since the beginning that we are in this together. That we share the same values, the same origins and the same space. That we face many of the same challenges and that, at our best, we are all better off when we tackle them together.

We’ve shown this to be particularly true on security and defence. Since the late 1950s, Canadians and Americans have worked side-by-side in NORAD protecting our continental airspace. And we have been the closest of allies overseas for even longer, including in NATO. In both cases, and others since, we realized that our concerns were better addressed together than alone. And that an active, engaged Canada in the world is good for us, and it’s good for the United States.

Our diplomatic effectiveness secured us a seat on some vital global tables, including the United Nations Security Council. We were therefore able to play a key role in crucial initiatives like ending apartheid and banning anti personnel mines. Of course, diplomacy is easy when you’re working with people who agree with you. It’s most challenging — but most urgently needed — when the common interest requires you to put differences aside to build solutions to shared problems.

Diplomacy reflects our core Canadian values. We are, after all, a nation of diverse people living peacefully together. It is part of what makes us Canadian.

So, now, we need real change when it comes to how we conduct our relationship with the United States if we are to continue our past success into the future.

Much of this change has to do with style and approach. But there’s an equally important change that we must absorb and reflect on in Canada-US policy.

Allow me be put it bluntly for a moment. Canada’s special relationship with the United States is not automatic. Like any strong relationship, you have to put a lot of work into it, and earn it. There is nothing pre-ordained about our influence or value in Washington’s eyes. Policy that fails to acknowledge this basic fact will fail.

Threats and a combative approach aren’t going to give us any real influence in Washington. We have to look at the whole picture, to make sure we really understand the true nature of US interests.

We have to understand where our unique national interests and theirs overlap. And we need to focus relentlessly, for the long-term, on making progress in those areas.

I’ve already spoken about one of those areas: climate change and clean prosperity. Indeed, it cannot be stressed enough how fundamental the global energy revolution currently underway truly is. The American economy is adjusting rapidly to take advantage of that change. Its public and private sector leaders are investing deeply in bold strategies to position the US as a leader in this brave new world.

Under Stephen Harper, Canada has not kept up. Now, I share the view that we need to diversify and globalize our approach to trade and foreign investment. We need to do more to strengthen our ties with burgeoning global markets in Asia and Africa, in particular.

However, we should not take our eye off the ball closer to home. I am not one who holds a pessimistic view of the US economy’s future. The decline and fall of US growth is the geopolitical equivalent of Sasquatch: often reported, but never verified.

Free access to the American market is an unparalleled blessing for Canada’s economy. It supports three-quarters of our trade and — most importantly — millions and millions of good quality, middle class jobs for Canadian families. We can never take that for granted.

A large part of that is understanding the US context as Americans see it, not as we wish they would.

There are many examples I could use — from NATO to the future of the Arctic — but I want to focus the remainder of my time on an issue that gets far too little attention: Mexico and its fundamental impact on Canada-US relations.

Mexico is now an equal or greater strategic preoccupation in Washington than Canada. This basic fact cannot be wished away.

As with the United States, Harper’s approach to relations with Mexico has been belligerent and borderline churlish. Aside from the overall neglect that has characterized their policy, the Conservatives’ changes regarding visa requirements surprised and needlessly embarrassed the Mexicans, and quite frankly, should have been reversed long ago.

Mexico is an important economy with a burgeoning energy industry and a young work force. By some estimates, its economy will rival Britain and France within 15 years. Its middle class is one of the world’s fastest growing. Crucially, it is the only emerging market in the world to commit to reducing emissions that cause climate change.

This is not to minimize the challenges faced by Mexico. Its problems are real and well known, and we should offer our help as partners to solve them. In many areas, Canadians have the necessary expertise to address Mexico’s needs, from the building of public institutions to infrastructure development to civil policing. We should see in Mexico opportunities to develop our relations and our economies. We need to seize those opportunities.

What does this mean for Canada and the Canada US relationship? In my view, it means that we must once again look at the relationship in a continental context. We must see our own future in the future of North America. American leaders have long seen Mexico’s problems — and Mexico’s progress — as their own. It’s time we understood that the road to real influence in Washington is to help solve big problems in areas of deep, shared interest.

Harper just doesn’t get it. His last contribution to North American diplomacy was to cancel a trilateral summit with the leaders of Mexico and the United States last winter. It was sadly representative of the Harper Decade.

So what needs to be done?

First, we need to restore cooperation.

As former US secretary of State George Shultz once said, managing Canada-US relations is like tending a garden: The way to keep weeds from overwhelming you is to deal with them constantly, and in their early stages. The Prime Minister needs to regularly communicate with the President, whoever he or she may be. We don’t have to always agree, but we do have to talk.

But the Canada-US relationship also needs to fit into a broader, North American context.

That’s why, as an immediate first step, our Liberal government would work to lift the Mexican visa requirement, and it’s why our government would also work to reschedule – and host – a new trilateral summit with the United States and Mexico.

Second, we need to push for the next major step in the history of North American partnership: a clean energy and environment agreement. North America can and should be the world’s most efficient and responsible energy producer. From Canada’s reserve of renewable energy exports like hydro-electricity, to the opening of Mexican energy markets, to revolutionary developments in the US energy industry, together we have an opportunity to position North America for a cleaner energy future. A key result of any agreement should be continental coordination of climate mitigation policies and alignment of international negotiating positions.

Third, a Liberal government would seek to re-energize cooperation on reducing impediments to trade and commerce between our countries – including by improving border infrastructure, streamlining cargo inspection, and making the movement of people easier. An efficient North American economy is vital for Canadian prosperity and for creating good jobs.

Finally, we need to treat the relationship we have with the seriousness it deserves.

At home, this means creating a cabinet committee to oversee and manage our relationships with the United States. And making sure that our ambassador to Washington is at that table on a regular basis. And abroad, we need to challenge our diplomats in the US to be creative in their approach to the relationship and we need to give them the mandate and the resources they need – and which the Conservatives cut – to do their jobs well. In the U.S., as elsewhere, all politics is local. To better understand these local realities and to ensure Canada’s voice is heard there, we need to have people on the ground – in as many critical regions and communities as possible.

These changes are not complicated. They are practical. They are also vital to our economic success. To implement, they will require a vision for a better brand of Canadian relations with our most important and vital trading partners. Canada has always understood that being fully and firmly committed internationally is important not only to our own success but also to the success of others. We are a country with a great deal to offer. It’s time for us to reclaim our place.

Diplomacy is often referred to as an art for a reason. It takes time, practice, skill, creativity, and patience – as well as a willingness to admit mistakes. For generations, Canadians have been masters of this art. We have had to be. And Prime Minister after Prime Minister understood how important it was that we made it work.

Real change is needed in the way we manage our relationship with the United States. In the way we see our place on this continent, and in the broader world.

It is time for the absurd spectacle of a hectoring, belligerent Canada – that has defined the Harper Decade – to come to an end. It’s time for real change.

Thank you.