It is unfortunate that almost the only time Canadians and even Americans pay any serious attention to the bilateral relationship is when there is a key irritant in play. Softwood lumber is the issue overwhelming every- thing in its path. It has been setting the increasingly negative tone for some time. Today it exemplifies the relation- ship and impairs Canada’s ability to work with and trust the United States as a true friend and partner.

Canada and the United States are in respective corners of their own mak- ing on softwood lumber. But instead of regarding each other with a view to mutually extracting themselves they remain unable to muster the energy, imagination and political will to make a move to bring both parties to construc- tive dialogue. All the dire warnings in Canada that the lack of US goodwill and principle on softwood could before long bring harm to the overall bilateral relationship are coming to pass.

So where does this leave us? First of all the relationship is too complex to undo ”” Canadian and US officials on a daily basis are engaged in count- less discussions on an incredible spec- trum of issues ”” all with a view to furthering the relationship and pre- empting other problems. This is a true two-way street ”” each country has its own interests to protect but both rec- ognize that we have common interests and objectives to pursue together.

The fundamental bilateral activi- ties ”” the ”Ɠstuff” of the relationship ”” continue unabated across the border. Those American public servants engaged in this set of positive and con- structive activities are aware of soft- wood and its impact on Canadian public opinion. But few others beyond their circles appreciate the magnitude of this issue in Canada. By comparison it is a non-issue in the United States.

Informed Americans would actual- ly find it objection that their govern- ment was straight-arming Canada and international agreements because of the efforts of a group with a narrow set of interests. But an increasingly protec- tionist Congress and a president who has yet to allocate the political capital and muscle to resolve the issue and restore fairness and mutual respect to the relationship are the key factors in this present stalemate.

The president cannot act alone; he does not have the power and at the moment his authority is at very low ebb. Working with the Congress is a constant set of trade-offs for the White House. It can command little and com- promises often ”” if it decides to move at all. Whatever capital the President would use to move this issue toward resolution is capital he won’t be able to use on other matters that loom much larger on his political agenda. Is the bilateral relationship such that the president can conclude that this kind of effort is necessary at this time? Where does the issue rank and where does Canada rank at the White House?

In a way, on softwood lumber the pres- ident and prime minister (from a dis- tance) face the same obstacles in the Congress. This is the body that created the trade protectionist framework of the 1980s. This is the body that barely gave the then new President Bush trade nego- tiation authority. This is the body that passed the Central American Free Trade Agreement by the slimmest of margins and then only after an enormous number of trade-offs made by the White House. This is the same body that plays such a vital role on a host of other issues of importance to Canada-US relations ”” cross-border security, pass- port requirements, agriculture and others. It cannot be ignored; it does not role over easily and it must be engaged in a very strategic fashion.

Paul Martin, in an effort to place an earlier issue in context, reportedly told President Bush about the various pressures he faced in Canada with respect to missile defence. We can only presume the president has shared with the PM the challenges he faces as he grapples with what to do on softwood. Or perhaps not. If he had, then that should give the Canadians some insight as to how best to go after a solution. Does this explain Ottawa’s sudden interest in China and India?

For now the Canadians are disap- pointed, exasperated and angry. The Americans, with the exception of a relatively small number of people, are oblivious.

The silver lining may well be that Canada will finally recognize that its interests need to be protected in a vari- ety of ways beyond what we reason- ably think are legitimate and reliable protections within international agree- ments. The importance of constraints on abuse and the provision of dispute settlement within bilateral agreements will never disappear. Nor should any country accept less than international- ly accepted levels of behaviour in implementing bilateral agreements. But in its relations with the United States, Canada must do much more every day to protect and promote its interests. But whatever it does requires a clear sense of what Canada’s interests are and a strategy to take care of those interests, not just for today but for tomorrow.

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