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Our Man in Havana

By Scott Proufoot
April, 1998

Cuba illustrates Canadians general disinclination to get involved in acts of ostracism and sanctions.  Canadian diplomacy much prefers dialogue and ‘constructive engagement’.  The American penchant for diplomatic positions based on ideology, moralism and domestic political considerations places the Canadian government on the other side of some issues

Prime Minister Chrétien recently returned from a two-day visit to Cuba.  It is not unusual for a Canadian to visit Cuba — about 170,000 Canadians go every year, most seeking an inexpensive vacation in the sun.  In Mr. Chrétien’s case it was the culmination of a four-year Canadian campaign to end Cuba’s diplomatic isolation and re-integrate it into the region. Beyond the trip’s diplomatic objectives, it was good business.  Canada is Cuba’s leading trade and investment partner with more than $500 million in two-way trade.

The trip also served a beneficial political purpose. By doing what President Clinton will not do and thumbing his nose at Jessie Helms, the Prime Minster was engaging in good domestic politics.  A recent Compass poll showed that nearly two thirds of Canadians support the government’s strategy of maintaining relations with Cuba and believe that Canadian companies should have some help in their fight against the US Helms-Burton law.

Canadians do expect to occasionally see a different spin put on Canadian foreign policy.  If that lesson was not well understood before, the negative public attitude towards Brian Mulroney’s approach to managing Canada-US relations has re-enforced the message for current and future Prime Ministers.

Former Prime Minister Mulroney made some very sensible assumptions about the United States.  He concluded:

• Most US trade policies are a direct extension of, and held hostage to, domestic interests
• In the US system, the lowest Senator outranks most foreign heads of state
• Who you know is at least as important as what you know and
• Everything is negotiable and negotiations never stop.

Mr. Mulroney concluded that to obtain what he wanted, he would have to jump in and start playing the US lobbying game. He also did what he had assiduously done throughout his entire life — he worked very hard at creating close personal relationships with important people.  In this case, these people were at the highest levels of the US administration and legislative system.  As a former labour negotiator, he enjoyed the game and felt confident in his ability to manage the process towards a reasonable result.  Mr. Mulroney was interested in ‘making the deal’.  And often the Canadian government did very well with this approach. 

In the give and take of diplomacy and trade negotiations, the press and elements of the public are more likely to concentrate on what is given and not what is received in return.  When it comes to Canadian/US relations, it is popularly believed that Canada always gets pushed around and there is a continuous one-sided search for evidence to support this thesis.

Despite the practical success, including the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement, Mr. Mulroney’s approach became a political sore point with the electorate.  Canadians did not like his chummy approach to American Presidents.  Most Canadians simply saw him as compromised and too eager to please our American neighbors.

Prime Minister Chrétien has been more careful.  He has worked hard to have a good relationship with the American President but he has been careful to keep the image of the relationship as professional and business-like as possible.  In fact, he has gone to humorous lengths to avoid admitting that he and President Clinton might actually enjoy each other’s company.  Chrétien is not so very different in his approach but, by appearing more removed, he has avoided many of the criticisms that followed Mulroney around.

The political bottom-line: Canada will not get everything it wants when dealing with the United States.  From a political risk perspective, the Prime Minister cannot always be perceived as winning but it is important to avoid the perception of having ‘sold out’.  Occasionally the Prime Minister should take public positions in opposition to American actions.  Cuba is an example, so is the recent Land Mines Treaty.  Such shows of independence can be expected in the future, partially as a political antidote to the underlying dependence and, partially as a reflection of who we are.

Cuba also illustrates Canadians general disinclination to get involved in acts of ostracism and sanctions.  Canadian diplomacy much prefers dialogue and ‘constructive engagement’.  The American penchant for diplomatic positions based on ideology, moralism and domestic political considerations always places the Canadian government on the other side of some issues.

It sometimes appears that for any international position that the US government wants to assume, there is a strong coalition of domestic interests prepared to oppose that position.  The US government’s position is often compromised by the need to accommodate these domestic interests.  Much American government’s efforts is devoted to coercing allies to make concessions on issues indirectly related to that domestic task.  This is inevitably a source of conflict between the US and its trading partners.

In Canada, a stronger national consensus exists behind foreign policy decisions. Majority governments generally get their way in a parliamentary system.  It is also due to the public support for the continuation of what is commonly described as Pearsonian diplomacy — the elements of which are peacekeeping, brokering, support for multilateral institutions (e.g. Canada pays its dues at the UN), dialogue, bridge building, etc. 

Canada has always worked at building its diplomatic reputation by positioning itself as the ‘more reasonable, less aggressive’ North American government.  There is considerable public support behind that positioning.

As a counter to being independent on some issues, Canada can be counted on to support the US on military issues on which it may not be in full agreement.  It will join the US in international military engagements or not be overly public in its criticisms of most military engagements in which the US may be unilaterally involved.

Some conflicts between Canada and the United States are shaped by the amount of attention that each party pays to the other.  It is fair to say that senior officials in the US government and the US Congress spend little time thinking about how US actions may adversely affect Canada.  Damage to Canadian interests is often the unintended consequence of an action directed elsewhere. 

Canada, on the other hand, gives a great deal of thought to its relationship with the US.  It is an on-going preoccupation with the Prime Minister and his advisors.  Canada puts its best people on the US files.  Canada is fully committed to managing its relationship with the US and its activities are likely to be far more conscious, deliberate, and planned.

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