Years ago a very successful and respected senior foreign service officer only half jokingly said to me that his memoirs would be titled ”œFrom Innocence to Irrelevance: The Life of a Foreign Service Officer.”
Derek Burney has taken his turn and provides the armchair foreign pol- icy quarterback and the aspiring diplo- mat with a career ride that I suspect was never totally innocent and by virtue of talent, skill, timing and good luck was never irrelevant.
Burney’s memoirs are fast moving, succinct and could just as well have been titled ”œTo The Point””” very much like the memoranda he wrote and the advice he gave while in government.
It is clear from his early years at External Affairs that Derek Burney had an eye with respect to Canada’s role in the world. His observations on the nature and emphasis of Canadian for- eign policy in the mid-1960s touch on the ability of Canadian governments, and by extension Canadians generally, to recognize the essence of the foreign policy of most nations: national interest.
Other writers have referred to the ”œgolden age” of Canadian diplomacy as a high point in our history but Burney calls a spade a spade and says ”œ(this age) was something of a secret outside Canada, more by choice or abstinence than design.” More revealing about our psy- che is his insight that ”œwhile most countries ”” define their international role in terms of their national interests (and moral imperatives) Canada is concerned more about the role we should be seen to play.” This ”œrole” as many readers will recognize, is the focus of much of today’s commentary about foreign policy review.
True to his reputation, Burney sets out his markers early. As to the key marker ”” our relations with the United States ”” he says that Pierre Trudeau’s ”œThird Option” with Europe ”œreflected the ambivalent, somewhat apprehensive attitude of many in government about relations with our giant southern neigh- bour: a preference to dilute rather than enhance the value of our proximity.”
Burney’s recollections and observa- tions of his early years in the for- eign service and his remarkably long assignment to Japan in the 1960s pro- vide an interesting snapshot of a peri- od of significant development internationally ”” change in China and Korea, war in Vietnam and greater Japanese presence internationally. These were in many ways reference points for the analytical work he was assigned and were the broad context in which he launched his career.
This book is a very interesting and informative gallop through G7 summit- ry, assignments to External Affairs Minister Don Jamieson’s office, encoun- ters with heads of government, the appropriate memoir material ”” without getting bogged down in minutiae.
We have a remarkable opportunity through this book to see clearly the nature of a public service career, albeit an unusual one ”” one that one hopes will prompt young Canadians to engage in public service at home and abroad. The last chapter, on his busi- ness career as an executive at BCE and CAE Ltd., clearly demonstrates that there can be a very successful post- foreign service career as well.
Burney’s move to the Prime Minister’s Office as chief of staff in 1987 is another major step in an already notable career. An unusual opportunity for anyone, it is particu- larly so when a career public servant is asked to do the job. As it turned out it was as much a creative and critically successful move for the PM as it was for Burney. It was a decision that secured for a decade Burney’s leading role in Canada-US relations.
Previously, Burney accompanied Prime Minister Mulroney on his first official visit to Washington, then fol- lowed up with the preparations for the 1985 Shamrock Summit at Quebec City, and the development of the free trade agenda as the senior official for Canada-US relations. We learn much about the kind of work and advice entailed in each of these high-level undertakings and appreciate the degree to which Mulroney came to rely on Burney’s professional disci- pline, pragmatism and overall skill-set.
At the time of the move to the PMO some kind of free trade train was on the track ”” no one knew for how long nor to what end. But when the PM says, ”œI want to focus my time on major issues like free trade and tax reform, not on tainted tuna” we appre- ciate how well Burney could help a political leader concentrate on priori- ties as well as the fact that here was a political leader with a clear agenda.
A public servant’s memoir rarely combines a working insider’s view of dealing with the key domestic and for- eign policy issues of the day while pro- viding us with the insider’s glimpse of the intricacies of dealing with them. Burney sets out well the intrigue, drama and tension of life at the political top. His outline of a ”œtypical” day in the PMO provides the reader with the full array of daily tasks generic to the office ”” Cabinet and Cabinet committee meet- ings, Question Period preparations, media relations, policy discussions, plan- ning sessions, internal controls, visiting dignitaries, preparing national events and major speeches ”” little if anything is left to chance and none of it really mundane. Politics is full of surprises and this comes out well in the book. Fans and students of the political game will find this section extremely interesting.
The chapters on the free trade negotiations and the posting to Washington as ambassador reveal the essence of the daily struggle to pro- mote and protect Canada’s interests in the United States. Although difficult, challenging, and often frustrating the cause is one which must be relentlessly and consistently pursued.
Canada was fortunate to have the team it did for the FTA negotiations. Burney’s perspective is invaluable as it fills an important gap in the writing on this subject. He has done a service both to the informed reader and to the researcher and historian. This book serves to de-mystify the negotiating process and to make the proceedings more transparent.
The 1988 election for the most part completed Burney’s Ottawa-based activities. On to Washington and for the reader another set of insights about a town and a process little-known and much misunderstood by many Canadi- ans. Burney calls his new role as ambas- sador ”œthe best job in the foreign service.” I would only add that it is one of the most difficult in government.
In Washington, he is reminded that ”œThe adrenalin for diplomacy is access; the lifeblood is relevance.” This cannot be overstated and Canada con- tinues to struggle with the issue of relevance in foreign affairs.
Burney effectively used the relationship between the PM and the pres- ident in securing access for him to the most important offices in Washington. He recognized the need to personally get a handle on the Congress ”” both its operations/process and personali- ties. He drew upon what former Ambassador Allan Gotlieb had learned and written about so articulately. He brought his own formidable skills to the job and maintained a stellar tradi- tion for Canada in Washington.
Burney demonstrated time and again that Washington is not the place for ”œtextbook diplomacy”; that personal contacts were important among elected officials, bureaucrats and the media and that nothing could be accomplished unless Canada did its homework and did it extremely well on every issue. As he notes: ”œA fundamental rule of thumb for all in the embassy was that it was easier to prevent or amend potentially damaging action by Congress than it was to undo it after the fact.”
It is on the chapters about Washington that a reader should con- centrate if trying to understand the nature of the capital and the means to influence it in Canada’s interest. His points remain valid today 10 years later and give the reader a clear picture of the challenge for Canada ”” of the complexity of Washington and the need to be constantly vigilant about one’s interests and to be prepared to act quickly and decisively.
Embassies can’t possibly solve all bilateral problems. Ambassadors can only do what at the end of the day the Canadian government permits them to do. There is no doubt that a confident, clear-headed Ottawa view about Canada- US relations and foreign policy in gener- al is critical to an embassy’s effectiveness in Washington. Some Canadians would rather ”œshoot” the messenger in Washington as opposed to examining how well Ottawa is doing its job.
In reviewing this book I was reminded of an occasion when I met with Derek Burney to say that the department had asked me to become director of media relations and that I would be thinking about taking it on. His quick response was that I should not think about whether I would do it but how I would do it and get on with the job. That’s Derek Burney ”” getting it done, and in writing his memoir, he has done it well.