Home The Washington Diplomat January 2008

Necessary Neighbors: Envoy Touts Vital U.S.-Canada Interdependency

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Goodwill between the U.S. and Canadian governments has always ebbed and flowed. Sometimes it streams easily across the two nations’ massive borders; other times the positive vibes recede as each side stubbornly protects its own interests.

Michael Wilson, Canada’s ambassador to the United States, started his work in Washington nearly two years ago—at a time when the countries were at odds over everything from the war in Iraq to border-crossing documentation to tariffs on lumber imported to the United States from the great Canadian wilderness.

Immediately after presenting his credentials to President Bush in March 2006, Wilson predicted a “different tone” in U.S.-Canadian relations. A key factor in helping to improve that tone was the 2006 election of Canada’s first conservative prime minister in 12 years, Stephen Harper—with whom fellow conservative President Bush has enjoyed warmed relations.

During a recent interview in his spacious office overlooking the U.S. Cap-itol on Pennsylvania Avenue, Wilson conceded that Canada’s decision to sit out the war in Iraq annoyed the Bush administration and for a time, cast a pall over the entire bilateral relationship.

“I think it did affect relations at the time,” he says. But the towering, white-haired ambassador believes the chill is beginning to thaw. “In my direct experience here, [the Iraq issue] has not had any apparent effect.”

And besides, he adds that the U.S.-Canadian relationship is simply too important for both nations to allow one or two disagreements to sour the entire bargain. “This relationship is easily the most important foreign relationship that Canada has,” says Wilson, a 69-year-old former businessman in investment banking and government finance minister who helped broker the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). “We have a huge amount of trade and a very substantial and lengthy border, so there is a lot of interaction.”

Many Americans might not realize it, but Canada—not the Middle East—supplies the most oil to the United States, accounting for 17 percent of U.S. imports last year. “That’s right, Canada, not Saudi Arabia or any other OPEC [Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries] producer,” Wilson noted in a speech at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce last year. “And Canadian production is growing, mainly because of the oil sands in Alberta. Currently, Canadian oil production is some 2.5 million barrels a day, roughly 1.0 million from the oils sands. With announced investments, the oils sands are expected to rise to 2 million by 2010 and potentially 3 million by 2015.”

But oil is just one component of the extensive ties between the two neighbors. In 2006, Canada imported 0 billion worth of American goods and exported 2 billion to the United States—79 percent of its total global exports. Canada also recently purchased billion worth of new military equipment from the United States.

Of course, the relationship goes be-yond mere economics. There are now Canadian studies programs at 56 U.S. colleges and universities. Americans routinely travel to Canada to ski, hunt and fish (or to buy cheap prescription drugs), while the white sands of Florida’s beaches remain among the most popular destinations for Canadians seeking to thaw out during a long, freezing winter.

But in the post-9/11 era, those cross-border excursions have inevitably become more difficult.

The U.S. Congress, worried that porous borders entice terrorists, passed the controversial Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) in 2004 (see also May 2007 issue of The Washington Diplomat). The measure requires people crossing from Canada (as well as Mexico and the Caribbean) to produce passports for entry by land, sea or air.

The air phase of WHTI took effect in January 2006, and the new passport requirement for land crossings was supposed to go into effect in January 2008, but U.S. officials—at the strong urging of the Canadian government—recently agreed to postpone the new edict until the summer of 2008. Wilson called it “cumbersome” to carry a passport for a simple border crossing, and the Canadian government is pressing the U.S. Homeland Security Depart-ment to consider some other form of acceptable identification.

“We are in agreement on the motivation for it—to have a new, secure set of documents that would be used,” Wilson said. “But we have been pushing back on the Department of Homeland Secur-ity to make sure the implementation is right.

“A border, like ours, can be seen as either a gateway or a checkpoint. For the bulk of our shared history, Canadians and Americans have seen our joint border as a gateway. However, since 9/11, it has been viewed by some as more of a checkpoint and this has us concerned,” the ambassador told the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce Policy Forum earlier last year.

“Canada, like the United States, has increasingly allocated resources to border security and infrastructure. Canadian and American police forces man the Integrated Border Enforcement Teams, we share information and intelligence every day, and we cooperate extensively on immigration activities. While we once proudly said that the Canada-U.S. border was ‘the longest undefended border in the world,’ we really now should be saying, ‘We share the longest, secure border in the world,’” Wilson explained, adding, “It is not made secure because we have extensive physical barriers. It is secure because our peoples are peaceful and law-abiding. In that sense, it is a ‘friendly border.’”

And a “friendly border,” Wilson argues, is necessary so as not to disrupt the massive flow of commerce between the United States and Canada—a fact the ambassador often stresses in his speeches across the country, citing the statistic that cross-border commerce produces more than class="import-text">2008January. U.S-Canada InterDependency.txt million worth of transactions every single minute. He also often points out that some 300,000 people cross the two countries’ shared border each day.

In November, the Toronto Star newspaper reported that only 39 percent of Canadians polled were aware that a passport would soon be required to enter the United States by land. The survey also found that 42 percent of Canadians don’t even own a valid passport. “I’m not sure how much Canadians are really paying attention to it,” Wilson admitted of the pending new travel rules.

One thing Canadians have paid attention to are the two U.S. wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although Canada decided to sit out the war in Iraq, its government has helped to fund reconstruction projects there.

Wilson says Canada’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan was more easily justified because al-Qaeda had a stronghold there. “That’s where their senior commanders were, so they had a safe haven,” he says. “We, with other NATO members and U.N. members, decided that this was important.”

Canada currently has about 2,500 troops serving in Afghanistan, mostly in Kandahar and elsewhere in the southern part of the country. So far, 71 Canadian soldiers have been killed in the war-torn nation—a fact Wilson admits makes many Canadians angry. “The largest portion of [those deaths] was in the last couple of years,” Wilson says with a tinge of regret in his voice. “It’s a very visible engagement and people don’t like that.”

The New Democratic Party has been especially vocal in its opposition to the country’s presence in Afghanistan, but Wilson defends the mission as justified—in part because Canadians themselves could be targeted by extremists, just as easily as Americans were. “9/11 was a bit of a wake-up call,” the ambassador says. “You had weaknesses and we had weaknesses, and we have since worked very hard to address those weaknesses.”

Thus, despite some consistent political dissent at home, Wilson says Canadians are unlikely to convince their conservative government to leave Afghanistan. “The government is committed to staying in Afghanistan…. We believe there is a very important job to be done there.”

But he adds that the Canadian mission in Afghanistan isn’t all military. “We are also working with Afghanistan in governance areas—rule of law, judicial systems, the training of police forces, etc.,” he explains. “It’s quite a broad mission.”

In fact, even if Canadian troops pull out in February 2009—as Prime Minister Harper told President Bush at a summit last summer, assuming he could not get a political mandate to extend the mission—Harper stressed that Canada’s role in Afghanistan with reconstruction and humanitarian assistance would continue well into 2011.

“If we don’t stabilize the region, we also expose ourselves to terrorists,” Wilson says. “This is the message that has to be conveyed to Canadians to have their full support. It will be a continuing challenge to convey that.”

An incident in June 2006 helped drive that message home. Canadian authorities arrested 17 people as part of a six-month probe that yielded a dozen Toronto-area men and five teens under the age of 18. According to police, the group “took steps to acquire components necessary to create explosive devices,” including three tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, commonly used in terrorist bombs.

“The June event was a wake-up call,” Wilson says. “I think it made people realize we’re not immune.”

To that end, Wilson lauded the cooperation of law enforcement on both sides of the border to prevent any such future incidents. “There are people who are concerned there could be terrorist activities in Canada,” he says. “That concern is addressed by the strong communication between the two countries’ intelligence agencies.

“We work closely on this because we share the same concerns,” Wilson continues. “It’s that cooperative activity that is the main source of security on the northern border.”

But he adds that Canadians often get frustrated by the perception that the United States is the only one at risk from a porous border. “Sometimes people think only of U.S. concerns,” he complains. “We also have concerns about things coming north—handguns and hard drugs are a big source of concern.

“These concerns work both ways. We are equally concerned about security at the border, but at the same time we don’t want to address those concerns by effectively blocking the border,” Wilson says. “We want to make sure people can go back and forth.”

Equally important is making sure goods are able to go back and forth. As the two countries prepare to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the U.S.-Canadian Free Trade Agreement in 2009, Wilson says he’s proud to have had a hand in getting the deal done, having served as Canada’s high-profile minister of finance at the time.

The agreement, since superceded by NAFTA, removed all tariff and some non-tariff barriers to agricultural trade between Canada and the United States, allowing producers from both countries to be more competitive in meeting the demand for agricultural goods. Since the signing of the agreement, U.S. agricultural exports to Canada have increased substantially, and Canada is now the leading export market for 39 of the 50 U.S. states.

“It really has resulted in the transformation of our economy,” Wilson says. “It has allowed Canadian companies to invest, consolidate and specialize in doing the things they do best.”

Although Canada and the United States enjoy the most investment-heavy and complex trading partnership in the world, there are times when domestic interests trump bilateral cooperation.

A prime example is the recent wrangling over the long-sought Northwest Passage, an area in the Arctic Sea covered by ice—for now. The passage had not been navigable to ship traffic without the need of an icebreaker until this past summer, when the ice receded as a result of climate change. A recent National Center for Atmospheric Research study found that the Arctic Ocean could be absent of any significant ice in the summers by 2040.

This massive melting caused by global warming has created a navigable route between the Atlantic and Pacific, opening up a potentially major new international trade and travel thoroughfare. It could also make the Arctic seabed’s oil resources easier to obtain. But the race to lay claim to the Arctic’s bounty has pit major world powers against one another. Russia has already announced it will open new ports on the Arctic Sea as major petroleum hubs for the 21st century. Competing claims have also come in from the United States, Norway and Denmark.

Canada, too, asserts is own sovereignty over the passage, a large chunk of which runs along the northern Canadian Arctic Archipelago. “We view those as Canadian waters,” Wilson bluntly told The Diplomat. Likewise, Prime Minister Harper told the U.S. Navy recently that it had to halt its nuclear submarine voyages through the Arctic Sea passage that winds through the hundreds of Canadian islands.

But the United States isn’t listening. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack stated last summer: “We believe it is an international strait. It’s a longstanding policy of the U.S. government.”

Despite friction over Arctic rights and looming questions over border control and Afghanistan, Canada is enjoying good news on the economic front. The country posted a record budget surplus in 2006—continuing a trend of surpluses every year since 1998, which has helped to slash the federal debt, boost the employment rate, and open up the possibility for a fresh wave of tax cuts.

In fact, the economic boom helped the Canadian dollar, or loonie, surpass the U.S. dollar in parity last September for the first time since 1976 (although the dollar has bounced back somewhat since then).

The economic boom also led to some speculation that Canada would hold elections in 2008 (minority governments in Canada tend to last about 18 months on average), but Harper has insisted that he will continue to govern with a minority and not call early elections.

Wilson laughed when asked how long he would serve as Canada’s top diplomat in Washington. “It’s called at pleasure,” he says, referring to the prime minister’s ability to designate how long an ambassador stays.

But until the time comes that he’s no longer needed in Washington, Wilson says he’s enjoying the city, from both a professional and personal standpoint. He and his wife frequent Washington’s various theaters regularly, and he likes hitting the links when he can steal away from the demands of the job. “I am a bit of a nut about golf, so I play it as often as I can,” Wilson confesses, citing Burning Tree in Bethesda, Md., as a favorite course.

“Washington is a great city,” Wilson adds. “It’s a wonderful place to be an ambassador. There is a huge range of issues you can become engaged in.”

Letters to the Editor

December 2007:

“District of Choice”

The omission from your article on DC neighborhoods of Georgetown as a highly desirable residential neighborhood, where in fact a number of diplomats and innumerable prominent persons live, is incomprehensible. The article relegates the District’s best known neighborhood, with an international reputation for history, charm and convenience, to a brief mention at the end highlighting it as a tourist Mecca with downsides from noise and crowds.

What about the hundreds of stunning houses in all price brackets? What about the convenience of the location? Even without the Metro (and the 30 buses plus the Circulator buses go within a block of the Foggy Bottom Metro station), one can go anywhere from Georgetown by bus via at least five different bus lines (D, 30’s, G-2, 38-B, Circulator).

As for parking, it is easier to park in Georgetown than in many close-in neighborhoods, including Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom.

As for families, contrary to what Ms. Cosmos might believe, Georgetown is full of relatively affluent young couples with small children. They are drawn to this vibrant, attractive, convenient part of the city. In how many other neighborhoods can so much of daily living, shopping, and dining be accomplished without ever setting foot in an automobile? To be sure, one can imagine that a couple with teenage children might prefer a free standing house in some other neighborhood like Cleveland Park. But the diplomatic corps is quite varied in its outlook, needs and tastes, and to omit Georgetown from serious consideration is, to repeat, incomprehensible.

I believe readers of Washington Diplomat have been misled by this article.

Sincerely, Allan Wendt

November 2007:

“Hughes Revamps Role of U.S. Ambassadors”

Although I am a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer who still works part-time as a retiree for the Department of State, this letter is strictly a personal one and was not submitted to the Department of State for its approval or comments.

I take exception to the thrust of the article by Sean O’Driscoll in your November 2007 issue which covers “Hughes Revamps Role of U.S. Ambassadors” which suggests that our ambassadors do not do enough in the way of public diplomacy and seem to avoid facing the media.

Although I was never a full-fledged ambassador, I served several years as Acting Ambassador in three posts and have been close to many ambassadors (both career officers and political appointees) over the years. Rarely have I seen an ambassador shy away from meeting with the media, whether the subject is a major policy issue or a local issue that involved the U.S. Rather, many of our chiefs of mission regularly seek out media representatives formally and informally (including invitations to their residences for discussions), and usually without specific guidance from the Department of State or the White House.

I have to concede that perhaps in this administration our chiefs of mission may have been led to more cautious interface with the media because of tight control from the powers-that-be, but at least in my years with the State Department 1957-2001 this was not the case.

As Mr. O’Driscoll writes, “the country badly needs to change international opinion.” I respectfully point out that international opinion of the U.S. is based on our policies (not about the views of our ambassadors), about which our ambassadors are committed to support. She talks about an “unwritten rule” for obtaining clearances beforehand, but Ms. Hughes is only a recent appointee to the State Department—and has already resigned—and cannot possibly have witnessed that our ambassadors over the years had to be “forced out of their shells.”

It is a shame that your newspaper appears to have distorted what our ambassadors are committed to do and actually do with regard to public diplomacy.

Notwithstanding Tucker Carlson’s commentary in the aforementioned article, it would be desirable for better-informed views of our diplomats’ roles to be presented in your issues.

Sincerely, Gilbert H. Sheinbaum Consultant Vienna, Va.

November 2007: “Ballsy Shrew”

“Ballsy Shrew”

I have read your article about the “Taming of the Shrew” with delight. I could not agree more with your point of view—although I am a political advisor in transatlantic relations (politics and trade) coming from continental Europe.

I was annoyed by the depiction of the two sisters as a “sextoy” or a “slave.” This is nowhere to be found in Shakespeare’s text. After all, Katherina has a high social standing and education because of her father’s wealth. That is why she can keep her own opposed to domineering males in the beginning. I had the idea that the director Rebecca Bayla Taichman is a weak director. There were too many misogynist images on stage. There could have been a “macho” director behind such brutishness. I was upset after the ending when the director was not even able to deal with the last lengthy speech of Katherina.

To educated European women of high social standing this interpretation was unacceptable. We are used to spirited women with money—and they get no “taming” by an impoverished man who needs to marry into money and thus has to put up with any kind of woman—even a shrew. It is rather the man who has to submit his cockyness in such marriage arrangements in continental Europe. The moneyed woman would rule the house and the relationship.

Perhaps the director comes from a “patriarchal” family. In Europe she would have no success with such a staging of the “Taming of the Shrew.” In my eyes she has not met the possibilities of the text. I heard the white women in the audience who expected a charming, passionate, brilliant Katherina never laugh out loud. This resembled a tragedy of sexism. In no way a comedy.

Sincerely, Britta A. Moeser Washington, D.C.

Any Letters to the Editor can be e-mailed to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or faxed to (301) 949-0065.

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer or The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999