Cannon to meet Clinton, and the post-presidential visit agenda

There’s news this morning that Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon plans to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton next week. This casts the story of Barack Obama’s visit to Ottawa ahead, even before the President sets foot on Parliament Hill.

The real impact of Obama’s visit will only begin to be understood when we start to get a sense of what comes next, like Cannon meeting Clinton, and how the Canadian government builds on these opportunities. The obvious starting point for any Canadian strategy would be to assess and exploit the Obama administration’s shift to multilateralism, or what Clinton calls “smart power.”

When Washington goes through a phase of heightened interested in international institution-building, a middle-sized country like Canada can make its presence felt. Economic and military might are less decisive during these periods, when adept diplomacy and a clear sense of priorities matter. It’s been a long time, though, since Canada’s foreign policy approach seemed purposefully focused, perhaps back to Lloyd Axworthy’s stint as Jean Chrétien’s foreign minister.

The post-World War II period, of course, was the heyday of this sort of smart power in Ottawa. That era’s diplomacy is now legendary, but it wasn’t really all that glamorous. To reach for a mundane example, the diplomat Escott Reid, in his memoirs, recounts how Canadian officials pushed diligently in 1944 for the creation of the International Civil Aviation Organization. Dry stuff—but Ottawa’s efforts to keep the U.S. and Britain at the table prompted Franklin D. Roosevelt, no less, to telegram Winston Churchill to remark that the Canadians “have labored tirelessly to bring us together.”

What international grunt work could Canada throw itself into now to take advantage of the Obama moment, and incrementally build Canada’s stature? The President is clearly interested in a tripartite Canada-U.S.-Mexico deal on energy and environment. The evolution of NATO is also in play, and Canadian credibility, hard won in Afghanistan, should allow us to be heard. Canada’s banking stability during the ongoing financial and crisis should give us standing wherever economic questions are being debated.

So far the Harper government just displayed much of a knack for imaginative opportunism along any of these tracks. But optimism, albeit an imported strain, is in the air here today.

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