Less than two weeks until the U.S. election means less than three months until a new president is sworn in and a new administration is born.
With Hillary Clinton well ahead in the polls, it is time to move past the schadenfreude of Trump sound bites and begin to prepare for what comes next.
So, here are two big picture reality checks and corresponding actions for western Canadian provinces, businesses and residents.
First, borrowing from the Wizard of Oz: pay no attention to the man, or in this case woman, behind the curtain.
The incoming occupant of the White House will have spent all of five minutes thinking about Canada during the election. If we’re “lucky,” she’ll double that amount of time in her first few weeks in office. What is important in the relationship are the people in her foreign policy team and those whom she appoints to the offices that impact the relationship. In other words, the people who spend more than five minutes a year thinking about Canada.
As former Labor Secretary and leading Democratic party thinker Robert Reich has put it – personnel is policy. And with a U.S. president appointing more than 4,000 civil servants from the equivalent of Deputy Minister through Assistant Deputy Minister down to director general – a reach that Canadians used to our less political system don’t fully appreciate – Reich’s point is a bit of understatement in the case of the U.S.
We will need to start going through the transition team and figuring out what members think about Canada-U.S. relationship. Back in 2008, Canada did well in this regard – with the Clinton and McCain foreign policy teams, but not with the Obama team. Paying attention to what surrogates for the candidates said gave us a clue of the bumpy road ahead.
When then Obama surrogate and now current White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough said dismissively during the summer of 2008 that Obama would renegotiate NAFTA, we would have done well to pay better attention. What is ironic is that McDonough’s statements were in direct contrast not only with those of McCain surrogate congressman Jim Kolbe, but also with former Bill Clinton Americas confidant and Americas adviser Mack McLarty, who had and continues to have a similar role with Hillary Clinton.
Under Obama, the Canada-U.S. relationship was off to a bad start before any personality differences between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Obama had a chance to materialize.
As we look to Hillary Clinton and her foreign policy team coming into office, there is reason for optimism. With Team Clinton, Canada will do well, thanks to the common thread of the Center for American Progress (CAP). In the U.S. system, think tanks also play a partisan role of supporting, nurturing and keeping policy talent warm between administrations. Both parties and the various factions within them have institutions where they can stash talent and develop policy outside of the government machinery. The CAP has played this role for Obama, Clinton and, to a degree, for the Trudeau government. Trudeau’s state visit to Washington, D.C., was as much a victory lap with and for the CAP as it was celebration of a positive turn in the relationship.
This shared policy generation framework will continue under a Clinton presidency, likely leading to a more fluid and dynamic relationship between Canadian government and U.S. administration based on a shared policy weltanschauung, or worldview.
An argument can be made that this is good for Canada as a whole, but whether it is good for the western U.S. and Canada is an open question.
And this leads to the second point.
Just as paying too much attention to the top of the ticket is a mistake for thinking about how the U.S.-Canada relationship will evolve, so is spending too much time thinking about Washington, and Ottawa.
While the White House and perhaps the Senate will be under democratic rule, the GOP has 30 governorships. With Washington mired in partisan gridlock, and with the prospects of this worsening under a Clinton administration, the states have become by default, by necessity and by opportunism, the place where policy advances are being made. At the sub-national level, the U.S. states are also often the origin of our trade irritants with the U.S. – yet also our greatest allies for resolving these irritants.
The bottom line is that we, especially in the West, need to pay as much, if not more, attention to state races. We’re also going to have start investing more in developing and nurturing our relationships. The Canadian provinces are already engaged. Saskatchewan was the first Canadian province to become a member of the US Council of State governments back in the early 2000s and Alberta just hosted the annual meeting of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region. Western participation in these meetings has led to outcomes like joint resolutions on environmental issues and Country of Origin Labelling. While having U.S. states on side for issues of importance to western Canada will not always turn the tide in our favour, in the U.S. it is a clearly important component of making our case.
As the U.S. states take on a larger role in policy on energy, the environment, labour, agriculture, trade, innovation and education, Canadian provinces would do well to increase their outreach and partnerships with their U.S. counterparts. This will mean investing more resources in sub-national diplomacy, in travel, in hosting and attending events. It will also mean not skipping opportunities like the attempt by Governor John Hickenlooper to convene a first tri-national meeting of governors, premiers and gobernadors in Colorado this past fall. Given that Hickenlooper is being shortlisted for Clinton cabinet appointment, having supported an initiative by a champion of closer North American integration who is headed to the cabinet table is in retrospect a clear choice. But for some reason this wasn’t the case when decisions were made not to attend.
Finally, sub-national engagement is the one area of the bi-national relationship that lies firmly in the hands of the provinces. It is an area where we are already well established and where we have the field pretty much to ourselves other than the odd Mexican state representative who shows up here and there. This is a huge advantage for Canadian provinces and as the US.. heads to more partisan gridlock in DC, an area where the provinces need to increase funding and focus.
If, after watching months of election coverage, we are worried about protecting our interests in the U.S., then this is where we in the West start. And that means not only supporting governments to invest the resources to stay involved but perhaps requesting that they begin to devote more resources to doing so.
– Carlo Dade is Director of the Centre for Trade & Investment Policy