OTTAWA – The ’80s are back in fashion, television and movies – and maybe now in direct diplomacy too.
That decade saw former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney and former U.S. president Ronald Reagan forge a personal friendship through state dinners and summits that would outlast their years in office.
But the personal relationship also provided the foundation for several landmark Canada-U.S. deals.
The topics on the table then are some of the same ones current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and current U.S. President Barack Obama are expected to be discussing at the state dinner in Washington, D.C. this week – trade, the environment and the Arctic.
The meeting is a good sign, Mulroney said.
“Not much happens on the international scale between Canada and the United States if there’s not a personal relationship between the president and the prime minister,” he said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
The Canada-U.S. free trade deal, the acid rain accord and an agreement on Arctic sovereignty all would have been harder to achieve without a personal relationship, Mulroney said.
“Those who tell you that it is unimportant for Canada as to whether you have a prime minister who has a good relationship with the president or not doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about,” Mulroney said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
“Good things happen in the American administration when the president of the United States says the prime minister of Canada and Canada is my friend and I want to see these things happen.”
The 1988 agreement on the Northwest Passage was a case in point.
In the early 1980s, the U.S. was of the view the Northwest Passage was international waters, but Canada disagreed. After a U.S. coast guard ship travelled through without getting formal permission from Canada, Mulroney began to aggressively lobby the Americans to see things his way.
When Reagan visited Ottawa in 1987, Mulroney showed him a globe, pointed to the route and asked Reagan how it could be considered international waters if it froze over and people could walk on it. As the story goes, Reagan then told his aides he wanted to say something nice about the passage in his upcoming speech to Parliament.
“Well the Americans just about went nuts. That was the last thing they wanted to hear,” recalls Derek Burney, Mulroney’s former chief of staff.
But they went off to draft a paragraph for the speech on finding a solution and the eventual upshot was the 1988 agreement that would require the U.S. to ask permission for future ice breakers to cross those waters.
Obama and Trudeau’s conversations on the Arctic are more likely to revolve around the environment than sovereignty.
Burney said he thinks there is room for another coming together of perspectives on the need for environmental protection of the Arctic.
“There’s a lot of potential. But it needs to be prodded from the top or it won’t happen,” he said.
Other topics up for discussion this Wednesday are broader climate change negotiations, the future of the Trans Pacific Partnership and border security.
While Mulroney and Reagan’s terms in office overlapped by a full five years, the Trudeau-Obama relationship will be shorter lived as the U.S. will chose a new president this fall.
Whether the next administration will take any cues from it remains to be seen, Mulroney said, but that doesn’t negate the power of Obama’s invite.
“Even if the president is only going to be there for a number of months this is an important tribute to Canada and to the manner in which the president views the relationship,” he said.