MONTREAL — Allan Gotlieb, right, the former Canadian ambassador to Washington, says Canada and the United States should form a common economic and security zone.
Otherwise, Gotlieb warned, the rising protectionist mood in south of the border is going to adversely affect this country for many years to come.
The main benefit to Canada of a “single economic and security space” is relief from the increasing obstacles to movement of goods, services and people over the border, said Gotlieb, who was a keynote speaker at the recent conference “Are We American? Canadian Culture in North America,” organized by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.
The ex-diplomat urged the Canadian government to immediately take the initiative to create such a union, and not wait to see who the next president is.
The current restrictions on border crossings are a “massive interference,” Gotlieb argued, and are only going to get worse, and Canada’s standard of living will suffer as a result.
Creating “a North American community” will “enhance our sovereignty, not prejudice it,” he argued, noting that the Canadian and American economies are already integrated, yet there is no longer any bilateral institution managing the border.
Canada should not delay taking the lead now, because George W. Bush is a “lame-duck president,” Gotlieb said. “The trouble is one year is a long time in international relations… And the new administration will have a rush of priorities when it enters office.”
Canada should also not think that the new administration will be less concerned about security, Gotlieb added.
“National security and defence trumps everything. It has always been that way, at least, since World War II. It didn’t begin with George W. Bush,”
The growing protectionist sentiment is not confined to Republicans either, Gotlieb said, noting that Democratic hopeful Barack Obama slammed NAFTA in a recent address in Wisconsin for driving good jobs overseas.
The golden era of a special relationship between Canada and the U.S. is over, Gotlieb believes. The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement “has proven to have been a destination, rather than a starting point,” and “we are facing the loss of a number of gains we negotiated under NAFTA.”
The two countries’ cultural affinity no longer counts for a lot on Capitol Hill, he said.
The U.S. Congress today is “ruled by special interests,” he contended, and friendship and sentiment mean little there any more, and it has become “a breeding ground for protectionism.”
Canada has few allies today among members of Congress, Gotlieb said.
Foreign nations are regarded as just another special interest group, only they aren’t as important as domestic ones because they don’t take in the political process, Gotlieb said.
This means Canada must lobby Congress like a special interest group, and in that game, the European Union, with its almost borderless integration, “is putting us to shame,” he said.
Canada should also work harder on strengthening its relationship with the White House, because the president has “enormous influence over Congress… No foreign country will get anywhere unless the president is on your side.”
Gotlieb was ambassador from 1981 to 1989, the longest term ever of any Canadian ambassador to Washington, and he played a key role in the negotiations toward the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement of 1988.
Gotlieb was also an under-secretary of state for external affairs during his 50-year public service and legal career.
While Canada’s standing in Washington may be slipping, Gotlieb said he’s confident Canada still enjoys a special place in the hearts of the American people, he said. “They think of us as family, cousins and neighbours, not foreigners,” as they do almost every other nation, and see little difference between themselves and Canadians.
But this also has its downside, according to Gotlieb.
“Americans expect foreigners to act like foreigners. So when the French act French and the Russians Russian, they are irritated, but it only confirms what they expect.”
However, because of the United States’ traditional intimacy with its northern neighbour, when Canada doesn’t toe the line, “they see us as naughty Americans, perverse Americans, and our disputes get angrier and more bitter because it’s like an internal family dispute. Canada becomes drawn into the vortex of U.S. domestic politics,” he said.