The announcement, made early in the day, reportedly came as a surprise even to Tillerson himself.
It’s unclear if Canadian officials were warned or suspected that a change was coming, but Ottawa will now need to adjust to a new face in the U.S. administration’s top foreign-affairs position.
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“We know we have had great working relationships with all folks, including Rex Tillerson, but we’ve also had a great relationship with his successor, Mike Pompeo,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a stop in Hamilton, Ont.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland offered no comment on the matter on Tuesday. The minister was actually in Washington when the news broke, but had no meetings pre-scheduled with Tillerson.
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The two had met on a number of occasions, had co-hosted an international meeting on North Korea in January, and were generally perceived to have a good working relationship.
“It’s not entirely clear what it means for Canada, because Tillerson seemed to be fairly friendly with Freeland, so we had good contacts there,” said Steve Saideman, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI), who also works in Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.
“Pompeo doesn’t really have an established record of being anti-Canadian or pro-Canadian. He’s from Kansas, so as a person from an agricultural state, I don’t think he’s as predisposed to be hostile to trade with Canada.”
The trade file remains a key one right now as Canada, the U.S. and Mexico continue to try to renegotiate NAFTA. But according to Sarah Goldfeder, another fellow at the CGAI and principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group, Tillerson was never the key point person for Freeland.
“Those negotiations are firmly under (Robert) Lighthizer … and to some small extent (Wilbur) Ross,” said Goldfeder, who has 15 years experience working in the U.S. federal government.
“The relationship that matters there for Chrystia Freeland is Bob Lighthizer.”
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Another key issue is the conflict between the U.S. and North Korea. Canada has pushed hard for a diplomatic solution, something that Tillerson also favoured. But again, said Goldfeder, switching out Tillerson for Pompeo likely won’t cause a seismic shift in that approach.
“When you talk to the people who are driving the North Korea policy, … they’re still working the same trap lines that they were before president Trump became president,” she said.
“I think it will be a consistent approach with Canada. I don’t think that they’ll do anything on North Korea that will put Canada offside.”
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The experts agreed that Tillerson, a former energy executive, was never a great fit in the State Department and that he never seemed comfortable in the role. Christopher Sands, director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said Tuesday’s shakeup in Washington actually mirrors one that took place in Canada over a year ago.
“I think this switch is similar to the replacement of Stéphane Dion at Global Affairs with Chrystia Freeland,” Sands said.
“President Trump is anticipating some big foreign policy issues in the next year and wants a Secretary of State who has better political skills and can communicate U.S. policy better through the media.”
As far as how Canada should approach the White House now that Tillerson is out, Saideman said his best advice is to “just keep on keeping on.”
“I think that while the recent trips to Asia haven’t worked out well, their strategy towards the U.S. has been very good,” he said, noting that the Liberal government has reached out to Trump, to Congress and even to state governors.
“I think that that effort should continue … It’s got to be across the board, because you never know who’s going to get fired tomorrow.”
– With files from David Akin