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Riding The Elephant

April 2004

By Colin Kenny   

The Citizen revealed recently that the Canadian government intends to establish a new secretariat in Washington to leverage federal and provincial influence with American decision-makers on issues of interest to Canadians.  

As the story said, “Canada’s invisibility in political Washington is legendary, so the creation of a new government body certainly could not harm the almost non-existent profile of Canadian politicians and business interests.” 

Bravo. We need a new presence in America – a secretariat to bolster Canadian embassy efforts in Washington, and more consulates in key U.S. Cities. 

But we also need a new attitude. In my experience, too many Canadians think the best way to make an impression with senior American decision-makers is to pull one’s forelock and numb them with pleasantries about what great friends we are. No wonder we become invisible as soon as we leave the room. 

I recently spent a week in Washington with a handful of members of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, working on issues of mutual importance to Canada and the United States. It’s a good, hard-working committee – we’ve put out six- reports over the past three years and, I think, won some respect for our analysis and recommendations. 

We met with more than 30 U.S. decision-makers, including Tom Ridge, Secretary of Homeland Security, and General John Gordon, Assistant to the President on Homeland Security. The trip was extremely rewarding in terms of intelligence gained, and points made. But rather than talking about content, I’d like to talk about methodology.  

My message to Canadians intending to have some impact in Washington is this: It is counterproductive to both Canada’s self-image and well-being to either toady to the Americans, or coddle them. Neither approach has a chance in hell of influencing either U.S. Governments or the American people. And when you’re dealing with the most powerful nation in the world, influence is what you want. In terms of what works for Canada, everything else is peripheral. 

So here’s the approach our committee found useful in dealing with Americans. It may not replace de Toqueville on all your bookshelves, but I hope it offers a few insights into the U.S. mindset: 

1. ATTITUDE. If you’re going down there with your cap in hand, don’t bother. There is no society that tries to get more done in less time than America. Decision-makers don’t have time for polite discussions with people on their knees. Either you have something to offer, or they’re not interested. 

2. AGENDA. If you appear to be there to cozy up rather than push your own agenda, Americans will treat you as either a fraud or a fool. Any visit without a clear Canadian agenda is a hamburger bun with nothing but mustard inside. Nobody will be the least bit interested in seconds. 

3. KISSING UP. Asking Americans “how’re we doing?” in terms of whether Canada is adequately satisfying their expectations of us is like a mouse begging for a kiss from a cat. You’ll only get the teeth. 

4. NO BLACKBOARDS. Meet around a table or in an arrangement of chairs. If you give them a setting with a podium, you’re just asking to be lectured. 

5. FIRST NAMES. In the old days using titles like “General” or “Senator” or “Doctor” or even “Mister” was a sign of respect. In the modern world, at least in the North American context, you either use first names or your conversation isn’t genuine. It’s that simple. Your title didn’t get you the meeting – the prospect of a useful exchange did. 

6. MEET THE BOSS.  Accepting a meeting with staff instead of the principal means you have just defined your own level.  

7. HOMEWORK. Advance research on what Americans are doing in your area of interest will ensure that the people you are meeting won’t devote the next 10 minutes figuring out the fastest way to get out of the room. 

8. SKIP THE CRAP. The same applies to asking them how their department/committee works or comparing the Congressional system of government to the Westminster system. Yawn. 

9. NO KISSING, NO HUGGING. Never plead for special consideration for any warm and fuzzy reasons – particularly on the grounds that "we are your best friend." American decision-makers, like their Canadian counterparts, have no friends. They have interests. See if you can make them jibe with yours.

Good vibes are for Lionel Hampton – you have points to make, not pals. 

Only nine commandments? Okay, I’ll throw in a tenth. Don’t bend over for the U.S. media. I was invited onto one of those shouting shows on the Fox network, and they seemed to be in the mood to make me feel like some pipsqueak from a country that didn’t have it’s house in order in terms of dealing with terrorism. I happened to overhear the producer encouraging the host to “nail ‘em on border issues.” They introduced the segment by saying that Canada might as well have a target on its flag instead of a maple leaf, so hopeless are we at dealing with potential terrorist threats. 

Well, anybody who has read our committee reports knows that our members also feel that Canada has some security gaps that need to be closed. But the Americans have just as many - or more. The decision-makers I met were honest about that. 

So, as soon as the host went on the attack, I swung it around and said, “yeah, we’ve got problems, but not nearly as many as you do.” Which sent him spluttering, and shouting, and expressing incredulity that I had actually offered American officials advice on how they might better deal with America’s problems. 

I’ve received a number of very warm notes from both Canadian diplomats and journalists saying how refreshing it was not to hear a Canadian whimper about our failure to meet American expectations on the security issue. The fact is that our government should be meeting American expectations, and Canadian expectations. And the U.S. Government should be meeting American expectations, and ours as well. 

We can help each other do that. Not by slugging each other. Not by hugging each other. But by bolstering each other through healthy self-interest that tends to translate into both sides’ interests whenever two countries are joined at the hip. 

Senator Colin Kenny is chair of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. He can be reached via email at