Our woman in Washington

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It's kind of surprising the position has not been advertised. It pays well, there is a great office to go to, and a residence, cook, staff, car and driver are provided. This being Ottawa, speculating on who will get named is one of the biggest games in town. It should be the best qualified person who gets the job; no one will be surprised if it is not.

The first Canadian to represent us in Washington was Vincent Massey who went on to be the first non-British-born Governor-General. That is Massey as in — “Canada has no classes, only the Masseys, and the masses.”

People still associate diplomacy with aristocracy, and for good reason. The profession flourished under the absolute monarchies of Europe; royal emissaries transacted the business of state.

Diplomacy in the age of electoral democracy has had to reinvent itself with every shift in communications technology. The cablegram supplanted the courier dispatch, before the telephone, fax and e-mail attached the diplomat to headquarters cutting off their decision-making autonomy.

Most of what is said and written about the qualities requisite in a Canadian ambassador to Washington make no sense. The last thing Canada needs is an ambassador who has direct ties to the prime minister, or clout with cabinet. If the Americans could choose who to receive, they would love to have a friend of Paul Martin, so they could send messages by arm twisting the Ambassador, so as to apply direct pressure at the top. How ever so much better to be able to say, “I will seek instructions from my ministry.”

What Canada needs is someone who cares not a whit about what Washington wants out of Canada, and cares a lot about establishing a Canadian presence in Washington.The trick is to insert Canada into the U.S. political process. Instead of being able to move Ottawa to do what Washington wants, Canada needs someone who can find allies within the world of American politics, so that American see the importance of issues important to Canadians.

Environmentalist Adele Hurley would do well as our woman in Washington. She worked the U.S. system to get progress on acid rain without anyone noticing she was a Canadian. On most of the issues that matter to Canadians — arms control, conflict prevention, global warming, pollution, poverty reduction, human rights — there is an American constituency. An effective ambassador would find ways of introducing Canadian perspectives and dimensions into issues such as UN reform or Third World debt forgiveness, and find Americans to join them in a sing-along.

The worst approach is to try and look as if you buy into the bone-headed ideas of the Bush administration in the vain hope that this will keep the Ambassador bridge open, settle the softwood dispute, and promote exports of pork bellies.

When Brian Mulroney was in charge he had to pay more than other prime ministers for his willingness to deal with Washington. He could be pushed on free trade, or the acid rain treaty because he had to come home to Canada with something to show for his friendship with the U.S. president. Knowing this, the Americans could give him as little as possible, and make him do the selling to Canadians.

Paul Martin has a great card to play. Canadians mistrust George Bush. The antipathy towards him is wide and deep. So Canada just has to avoid playing on the same team as the U.S. president when it comes to security and anti-terrorism crusades. Instead, Canada needs to work quietly to bring issues out in the open where people can join our side.

Adele Hurley told Marci McDonald, author of Yankee Doodle Dandy, the excellent account of how Canada fares within the American empire, that when acid rain was no longer acceptable to polite society, the issue was on its way to be won.

That is the challenge for our emissary to Washington: not to come back with your shield or on it, the order given the Spartan helot soldier, but to go out and spread the word about the real issues facing Canadians and Americans alike — global warming and the survival of the planet, for instance, or the great waste of money that is so-called missile defence. There is no point in trying to buy favour with people who understand perfectly well what is going on, and expect to be paid much more than any Canadian prime minister can safely offer.

Forget the need to impress the president. The U.S. is a big diverse country; find ways to connect to it. The American people are the key to controlling what happens in Washington. Let's find an Ambassador who can help rouse them to action on issues that matter to Canada.

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