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COMMENTARY

Get the footwork right for the Obama summit

Keep it simple and personal and, for heaven's sake, don't whine

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Canada is fortunate to be the first country on the dance card of America's new president. Although no date has been set, Barack Obama's visit is likely to come soon after his inauguration next Tuesday. This meeting will be critical to charting a new course in Canada-U.S. relations. It provides an opportunity not only to put our relationship on the right footing but also to elevate its tone from one that is "correct" to truly inspired.

If the meeting between Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper is to be a success, however, Canada will have to show the new president that we are a nimble and dependable partner. If we are clumsy and flat-footed, another opportunity to set the beat will not come any time soon. To ensure success, Mr. Harper and his officials will have to follow some basic rules.

Keep it simple: As the more experienced leader, Mr. Harper should keep the agenda for the meeting relatively straightforward. He should leave the more complicated syncopations of Canada-U.S. relations, such as softwood lumber, for another conversation. At this point, these are unnecessary distractions for Mr. Obama.

Mr. Harper must show the new president that Canada is moving in step to deal with the economic crisis. The meeting provides a window of opportunity to strengthen bilateral dialogue on a North American plan for economic recovery and long-term growth. A bold joint approach would be well received by the public, and help both leaders. They could follow up with a joint cabinet subcommittee to implement a shared recovery (and long-term development) plan. Above all, the agenda Mr. Harper proposes must highlight the mutual benefit from bilateral co-operation in addressing the broader economic and security challenges the Obama administration will need to tackle.

Don't whine: It is in Canada's interest to be a credible contributor to the solution of major problems rather than an annoying nag or whining diversion. Pragmatic collaboration on climate change and energy security (as signalled recently by the Prime Minister) is a good example of where we can work together on a priority global issue where U.S. leadership is essential. We should combine practical bilateral action (versus empty Kyoto rhetoric) and anchor a much-needed global commitment.

On global security, Mr. Obama is committed to strengthening U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. There are no easy answers, but Canada certainly has earned the right in blood to influence stronger U.S. leadership, to coax European allies to do more and to spur a more substantive international effort to deal with the region's wider political and security problems. If Mr. Harper can bring useful ideas to the table on how to deal with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and the Middle East, he will get Mr. Obama's attention.

Build solid personal relations: Canada-U.S. relations have operated at their best when there has been personal chemistry between our leaders. The 1985 Shamrock Summit between Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney cemented a close friendship that paid real dividends. Mr. Mulroney also had warm relations with Mr. Reagan's successor, George H. W. Bush, who sought his advice on major global issues.

At a dinner at the family compound in Maine in early August of 1991, for example, Mr. Mulroney urged Mr. Bush to secure United Nations Security Council approval and French president François Mitterrand's support before launching the war against Saddam Hussein to oust him from Kuwait - a position Britain's Margaret Thatcher had vigorously counselled against.

The simple truth is that personal relationships count for a lot. And remember the old saw, "If the White House doesn't answer your calls, no one in Washington will."

Don't hesitate to say you'd like to meet again: If the meeting goes well, Mr. Harper should propose that annual summits between our two countries be reconstituted. These would offer the opportunity for firm direction and the necessary therapeutic push on both bureaucracies. Leadership at the top is critical to ensuring priority attention in both capitals. It will only be successful if it flows from a foundation of mutual respect and trust, carefully built and nurtured by the two leaders, and with an attainable agenda.

But Mr. Harper will have to take the lead on this with creative ideas, and he will have to demonstrate convincingly that what is being proposed carries mutual benefit. At a time of deep economic apprehension and continuing global insecurity, Canadians need bold and inspired leadership determined to make the best of Canada's unique position next door to the United States.

Derek Burney, a former Canadian ambassador to Washington, is senior strategic adviser at Ogilvy Renault LLP. Fen Osler Hampson is director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. They are co-chairs of Carleton's Canada-U.S. Engagement Project, which will present its final report this week.

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