PM Martin Meets With US, Mexican Presidents

IF THERE'S ONE POLICY area in which Paul MARTIN longs to appear adept and far-sighted, it is foreign affairs. In an interview with Maclean's late last year, the Prime Minister said he planned to take charge on key domestic concerns, such as health or daycare, only when needed. But on international issues, he declared, "I'll always be fully involved." Maybe that hasn't been such a good thing. After he let Defence Minister Bill Graham and other senior officials publicly tout the benefits of joining the U.S. missile shield program, Martin's decision to opt out, with scant explanation why, looked slipshod. Prolonged delay in finishing a sweeping international policy review suggests his government can't decide what big ideas to pursue. Even his decision to split Foreign Affairs and International Trade into two departments has turned into a fiasco - voted down by the opposition parties in the House and widely disparaged as ill-conceived from the outset.

So Martin isn't exactly sitting tall in the saddle as he rides into Texas this week for a get-together with George W. Bush and Mexico's President Vicente Fox. Yet the meetings, including highly symbolic casual time at the U.S President's ranch in Crawford, could be Martin's chance to start turning things around. The timing is good, if he can exploit the opening. The announcement of the trilateral summit came just after Martin said Canada wouldn't participate in ballistic missile defence - a clear signal that Bush wasn't so miffed that he intended to impose an extended chill on the relationship, as he did after Jean CHRÉTIEN refused to take part in the Iraq war. And the topics up for discussion in Texas, especially border issues, play to Canadian strong suits: since the Sept. 11 attacks, Ottawa and Washington have worked closely on tightening border security and streamlining crossings - a source of goodwill in an otherwise strained period.

Still, given his recent record, Martin has an enormous task ahead. Canada's highly skeptical community of foreign-policy wonks is ready to pounce at the slightest sign of another misstep. At least three camps peddle conflicting versions of the conventional wisdom that Ottawa, even before Martin, had grown inept when it comes to positioning Canada on the world stage. One group, galvanized by Andrew Cohen's 2003 bestseller While Canada Slept, pines for the ambitious diplomacy of the two decades after the Second World War. A second, nostalgic for Brian Mulroney's unabashedly pro-U.S. stance, urges a return to what they see as his trade-based realism. And a third includes fans of the agenda Lloyd Axworthy championed when he was Chrétien's foreign minister - the so-called human security approach that lay behind Canadian support for the treaty banning land mines and the creation of the International Criminal Court.

With critics taking aim from so many angles, Martin is bound to draw fire from some even if he does get his act together. He hasn't done himself any favours by raising expectations and then dashing them. He vowed to bring sophistication to U.S. relations - then played the missile shield file clumsily. He stoked anticipation for the ambitious policy review - only to postpone it so long that even one loyal insider calls the exercise "deeply demoralizing." And while these big setbacks create an aura of ineptitude, Martin shows no sign of being able to capitalize on more promising developments. Yet they exist, particularly in managing the American relationship. Worried that Canada is in danger of being frozen out by a security-obsessed U.S.? Just last week, Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan and U.S Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced a major joint counterterrorism exercise, along with Britain. Afraid the Iraq war spelled the end of Canada's special status with the U.S.? The fact is that Canadians were uniquely exempted from the new American policy of fingerprinting and photographing foreign visitors.

Perhaps even more significant is the $12.8-billion, five-year boost for Defence announced in last month's federal budget. Paul Cellucci, the U.S. ambassador whose term ended last week, heaped praise on the military spending hike. And Cellucci, who didn't hesitate to lash out at the Liberal government over its missile shield decision, was hardly known for empty diplomatic flattery. Not only are the Canadian Forces getting an injection of cash that's bound to be welcomed by the Pentagon, they also have a new chief of defence staff who promises an international image makeover. Lt.-Gen. Rick Hillier vows to make sure that Canada gets credit from allies, including the U.S., when it deploys troops abroad - credit he feels was lacking during past missions, such as Canada's major contribution in the former Yugoslavia. "We can do better," Hillier says. "We can have a higher profile and an influential seat at the table."

But the unmistakable fresh feeling of purpose that Hillier brings to Defence has yet to show up in aid, trade and diplomacy. There are, though, scattered signs of a sense of urgency. Earlier this month, David Fransen, assistant deputy minister for policy at Industry Canada, issued a plea for the government to come up with a coherent strategy for exploiting China's rise as an economic powerhouse. At a Public Policy Forum seminar, Fransen flagged declining market share for Canadian exports to China, and Canada's shrinking slice of Chinese investment. A key test of Martin's big policy review - whenever it finally appears - is how precise and persuasive it is on China. The Prime Minister has made plenty of noise about recognizing the importance of change in Asia, but hasn't offered any bold new approach.

Nothing so big as the challenge China poses is on the agenda for Texas. Given his recent woes, though, Martin would surely settle for merely appearing competent and pragmatic. The scope of the discussions will be limited by the fact that Canada and Mexico have such different relationships with the U.S.; crafting any agreement that works for all three countries is tricky. Still, a few subjects could produce language of the sort that makes for smiling photo ops on the ranch. One strong possibility is a deal to coordinate planning for the feared global influenza pandemic.

For Martin, though, what's crucial is showing off a decent working rapport with Bush before the cameras. A chorus of critics will be watching for any hint of tension. At least Martin no longer has the problem of having to meet lofty expectations. With a dubious foreign affairs record to date, he now faces the humbler task of rebuilding his tattered credibility on the very file that may matter to him most.

Maclean's March 28, 2005