Allan Gotlieb Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Learning the Ropes, Working the System: Conversation with Allan E. Gotlieb, former Canadian Ambassador to the U.S., by Harry Kreisler; 1/26/89
Photo by Robert Holmgren

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New Rules of Diplomacy

You might say that the "new diplomacy," in one sense began in the old days of the Kuomintang and the China lobby. Israel is also a very powerful force in the halls of Congress. You mention Senator Mitchell, who supports the Canadian point of view on acid rain. Maine is also very concerned about acid rain for the same reasons as Canada. Yet Senator Mitchell and Senator Cohen, the Republican senator from Maine, voted against the Free Trade Agreement. Without necessarily talking about these two senators, can Canada count on any across-the-board support? Are there no permanent alliances?

There are no permanent alliances, and that was one of my ten principles of the "new diplomacy." In some areas (you mentioned the China lobby, or you can take Israel, or the Greeks or the Turks or the Pakistanis), you may develop a particular constituency. It may not be very powerful, it may be very powerful, but often it is possible for a foreign country to have certain congressmen who are sensitive to that ethnic vote. And the ambassador, or the embassy, does not have to become involved directly in the U.S. process. It's done through U.S. special interests, the American way of life.

In the case of Canada, of course, we have an enormous number of Canadians in the United States. If Canadians were organized, we'd have a lobby which could move the United States right off the map. After traveling the United States and counting the number of Canadians in California (one million), Florida (two million), and Texas (half a million), I concluded that Canada was a country of 26 million Canadians, 52 million of whom were living in the United States. But Canadians absolutely do not identify with Canada on issues in a political context in the United States. Whatever they may think about acid rain or trade, we've never, in all my time, ever used or thought of using or even dreamed of using Canadian power in the sense of Canada being an ethnic community -- it isn't. Canadians are simply not into that. There are no ethnic parades and no ethnic festivals, and there's no ethnic vote. Senator Moynihan of New York is an example of a great, great friend of Canada on acid rain, and a great friend of Canada on free trade; but he took the lead in seeking retaliation against Canada for certain cultural policies on broadcasting which were injuring, as he believed and as they believed, a TV station in Buffalo. So that makes the Canadian diplomacy all the more difficult. There is no handful of key people on the Hill that are responsive to a Canadian point of view. I think that's a good thing, by the way; I think that's democratic, I think that's fair, and I think that's one of the reasons why Canada is decently regarded in this country.

Now, having said that, I would want to qualify it, because for better or for worse, the issues and conflicts are decided in terms of genuine interests, and not because of some attempt to manipulate public opinion. It's legitimate, it's fair, but we don't do it. (Actually, the reason we don't do it is that we couldn't do it; but, we don't do it.) But there are a handful of people, in my experience of seven or eight years, who were, I thought, particularly conscious of the importance of Canada to the United States in the full sense of the term relationship. Appreciative of it in its economic consequences, in its military and geopolitical consequences, and in its historic consequences or historic dimension. And I think that, whereas they could and did oppose Canada vigorously on certain issues, nevertheless, I could describe them as being more than routinely sensitive to the importance of the Canada - U.S. relationship. People who took leadership stances. I would identify Senator Moynihan in that category; I would identify former Senator Evans of Washington, who stepped down the other day voluntarily. I would include Senator John Chafee of Rhode Island. I would included Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey. And I don't want to be exclusive but these are some of the leading names that come to mind. People who would worry when things were going badly, who would be disturbed if there were deterioration in the relationship, who had a sense of the broader importance. One of my bon mots, if I can say that, in terms of the new diplomacy, is that in the United States, foreign countries are "special interests," and not very special ones at that. Well, the people I mentioned didn't see Canada simply as a special interest.

The work that you're describing strikes me as being the work of political education. So maybe you still are an educator in one sense of the word. In your speeches and in comments you've made on the campus during your stay here, you talk about the importance of the social life of Washington in these efforts.

Well, in my attempt to describe the new diplomacy, I describe the physical context, and the physical context I've likened to being inside an atom, where you have all kinds of particles floating around, maybe 1,000 particles, and each particle is charged with some power. Each has a charge. And that charge is one that can cause your country pain. It might be through putting a tariff on a potato or denying you access to a military procurement contract: as broad as the country is, and the interests are, that's how broad the powers might be inside of all these particles. Some of these particles are charged with more power than others. A president, I would say, has probably got the biggest charge. Or the chairman of the Finance Committee in the Senate has got a huge charge, depending on the issue. The chairman of the Ways and Means Committee has a huge charge. And because power is so dispersed, it means that issue by issue, the particles have to be aligned in such a way that they are favorable to you. Or that they are not aligned in such a way that they are negative to you. If that is the nature of influence and decision making, if there are hundreds of units out there doing it, then you have to reach out very broadly. You've got to make contact with an awful lot of them. The wisest comment ever made to me by a diplomat, when I first came to Washington, was by the departing British ambassador, Nicholas Henderson, a very intelligent man, who said, "You know, my dear Gotlieb, anybody in Washington who tells you he knows where a decision was made is either a fool or a liar."

Decision making is enormously complex. You never really know who the key players are -- they shift on you from decision to decision. I've said that you can't have a strategy for dealing with Washington, you have to have micro-strategies, and as many micro-strategies as there are issues. You've got to reach out. And how do you reach out? How do you get to know these people? You can't try to present your point of view if you don't even know them. Not all of them are going to rush to answer your telephone calls if they don't know who you are. If they do, you might get a fairly brusque call, or you might wait several weeks to see them. So the social life in Washington is very useful because it provides a common field in which people can meet, get to know each other, and actually do business. Parties are a continuation of business by other means. The number of transactions or contacts that are made at night, or informally, is astonishing. The most popular receptions in Washington, the ones which really draw, are those given by the media. That's because the media's so powerful. But you can walk into a media reception of some TV program that's congratulating itself on its birthday, and you may have 20 or 30 senators, you'll find half the Cabinet. You know, you may be having one devil of a problem and you may see just the person, it may be the National Security Advisor who's been in a crisis for four days and you couldn't even get to see him. Or you may be dealing with the number two National Security Advisor with whom you're not getting anywhere, and you can't very well go to the number one because the number two would resent it very much (and you have to take the long view if you're there); and in any case, it's very unlikely that number one would want to overrule the number two. But, if you meet him at a party and you start talking, and you're having a drink, or you're sitting beside him at dinner, then fair is fair. Then you've got a chance to say, "Oh, by the way...."

My wife, who's a writer, is fond of quoting Jane Austin. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth says, "Everything happens at parties." In my new diplomacy descriptions I have said that in Washington, gossip is not gossip -- gossip is intelligence.

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