Talking with Americans

The Globe and Mail, (Canada), February 5, 2004
By Leon E. Panetta

The longest undefended border in the world — that separating the United States and Canada — provides unparalleled potential for partnership as well as for conflict. This important relationship depends on understanding, trust and communication. It can be undermined by anger, suspicion — and silence.

Canada is uniquely positioned to influence U.S. policy by virtue of its proximity, resources, people, values and history. Both nations are part of the same family and each depends on the other on the North American continent. We must enhance our strengths by building stronger ties and by managing the differences inherent in the relationship. A number of issues confronting our countries warrant close collaboration — from trade to international security, from globalization to the economy and the environment, and from immigration and transportation to law enforcement.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Canada has helped to combat terrorism, strengthen border security, share intelligence, and expand law enforcement to better manage our shared border. We are two nations that have similar goals for our people; we both recognize that our common border can help enrich our economies, our security and our survival.

Trade is another area where the United States and Canada have enjoyed close relations. Canada is still the largest trading partner of the United States, with total merchandise trade exceeding $353-billion ( U.S.). The U.S. State Department has projected that we have an estimated value in trade at $1.4-billion per day between both countries, resulting in the largest bilateral commercial relationship in the world. The United States purchases approximately a third of Canada’s gross domestic product. Trade liberalization between the two partners has strengthened our countries through the establishment of additional multilateral free-trade agreements to further integrate our economies. We have a rich history that has been blessed with ongoing partnerships, collaborative ventures and a strong sense of trust.

But we cannot take this relationship for granted.

The failure to communicate on a regular basis and discuss issues of concern can undermine good relations and breed distrust. The key is to establish a better understanding of the complex legislative and policy processes of both nations. That means creating some form of regularized contact between the U.S. and Canada at the highest levels.

As democracies, our policies are developed and enforced through similar legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. But the political forces that influence that process can be very different in your country and mine. In Washington, for example, it would be difficult to get anything done this year without understanding the depth of partisanship and election-year politics dominating all of the issues.

By maintaining communication and frequently visiting with members of Congress and the administration, Canadians can better understand and influence the political process that is crucial to a stable relationship. The groups that are successful in influencing policy in Washington, D.C., do not sit back and simply react to events as they unravel. Rather, these groups continuously track legislative proposals so that they can respond to issues as soon as it is appropriate.

Canada needs a much more aggressive lobbying presence in Washington. That means there must be more than the occasional reception, event or meeting with key leaders. Effective lobbying demands regular contact with staff, members, chairmen and House and Senate leaders from both parties. It is the depth of personal contact and communication, rather than the occasional diplomatic exchanges, that will do much more to improve U.S.-Canada relations in the long run.

In addition, I believe it is important to establish consistent communications between our policy-makers. Instead of waiting for G8 meetings or other multilateral gatherings, it would make sense to establish regular, high-level meetings to address our common concerns, promote closer relationships among policy-makers and help educate each other about the particular needs of our nations.

As a former chief of staff to president Bill Clinton, I believe one approach would be for the chiefs of staff of the U.S. president and of the Canadian prime minister to meet on a regular basis to discuss issues that have an impact on our relationship. I did this with the then-chief of staff of the president of Mexico during their currency crisis in 1995 and it proved helpful in co-ordinating U.S assistance. I regret that we did not continue that process during the ups and downs with immigration issues and the NAFTA trade agreement.

Chiefs of staff would be in a strong position not only to inform and influence their leaders but to move their respective bureaucracies to action. The lines of communication must be active and functional on a continuing basis, not driven by the crisis of the moment.

The key to succeeding in Washington and Ottawa is to develop strong relationships with the key players, recognize the nuances of each, and monitor legislation that is central to our goals. We need to build closer ties between our governments as well as establish better alliances between our policy-makers and officials.

There will always be diplomatic and political differences that will challenge the partnership between the United States and Canada. But having a stable process for communicating, for understanding and for action will maintain the trust crucial to our historic bond.

If not, we will operate.

© 2004 The Globe and Mail, (Canada)