Editor: Mr. Ambassador, you were first elected to the House of Commons in 1979. Would you share with us what attracted you to a career in public service?
Wilson: My first exposure to the possibility of a career in public service was at university. I went on to investment banking and the financial world, but I had an exposure to monetary policy and fiscal policy at the same time. During the 1970s I came to know a number of people in the public arena, and my interest in the policy aspects of politics was greatly heightened. I decided to run for the House of Commons in 1979, and that led to a parliamentary career that included ten years as a member of the Cabinet.
Editor: Would you tell us about the highlights of your career?
Wilson: Canada's links with the international community have constituted a series of high points of my career. Participating in the policy discussions at the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, GATT (which has now evolved into the WTO) and similar organizations permits Canada to have its views heard and understood across the world.
At the IMF I served as chairman of the policy-making committee that engineered an approximately 90 billion dollar increase in the Fund's quota. At the World Bank I helped to develop the institution's environmental focus - new territory for them at the time - in recommending the appointment of a vice president for the environment. My GATT experience proved to be very helpful when Canada and the U.S. entered free trade negotiations. And, finally, at meetings of the G-7 group, I was able to deal with the finance ministers of the most important economies in the world. These were most productive experiences.
Editor: To what extent were these experiences preparation for your present position?
Wilson: Well, much of the discussion between Canada and the U.S. concerns trade issues, so all of the experience I have had in the international trade arena enabled me to be well up the learning curve when I became ambassador to the U.S. The issues are always changing, of course, so I have found it important to have had experience, both as a private sector participant and on the governmental side. I am in a position to draw upon the expertise of a great many people in the Canadian private sector, which contributes to my role in the ongoing Canada-U.S. trade discussion.
I think the most important preparation for my present position derives from my years in government in Canada. Both Canadian and U.S. issues are driven by politics, and in my case my past exposure to local, national and international political activity has made it much easier to relate to the issues here.
Editor: What are the principal responsibilities of the Canadian Ambassador to the U.S.?
Wilson: The United States is our largest trading partner, our closest ally and our next door neighbor. The relationship generates a variety of complicated issues. My role is to represent Canada in the discussions that derive from these issues.
Since becoming ambassador in March, I have spent a considerable amount of time on the softwood lumber dispute. At the end of April we reached a preliminary agreement, and we are now working toward bringing the matter to a satisfactory conclusion. I have also been involved in the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which, among other things, impacts both border states and the Sunbelt states, where many Canadians vacation during the winter months. We are supportive of the security aspects of this initiative, but we are also mindful of the need to avoid unnecessary disruption to legitimate trade, travel and tourism. We need to get this particular matter right.
Another area which claims a great deal of my time concerns bilateral security with respect to our common border and our joint efforts in the war on terrorism. I am also engaged in what I should term common cause issues. Canada and the U.S. are NATO allies, and Canadian troops are serving alongside American soldiers in Afghanistan. Canada is also involved in development activities in Iraq. Closer to home, we share a great interest in the evolution of democratic institutions in Haiti, and we have a common concern over some of the positions President Chavez of Venezuela has taken vis--vis other countries within the Western Hemisphere. All of these issues come within the ambit of the Canadian Ambassador to the U.S.
Editor: The relationship between the United States and Canada has been characterized as the most successful bilateral relationship between neighboring states in the world. That did not just happen. Why, do you think, has it been successful?
Wilson: It has evolved over a long period of time, but there have been several crucial moments in the evolution. The Second World War played a significant role in the relationship between the two countries. In addition to being allies in war, we became close trading partners with respect to a whole host of defense-related activities. Those activities gained momentum during the Cold War. Over time the two economies became increasingly integrated, and the flow of cross-border activity - in both directions - increased dramatically. Canada saw that it could compete with the American automobile industry, and that encouraged the lifting of trade barriers across a whole range of industry sectors. The Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement then served to take the Canadian economy that was approximately 25 to 27 percent export-oriented in the 1980s to something well in excess of 40 percent today.
With the maturing of the Canadian economy, many of our industries outgrew the domestic market and saw opportunities south of the border that the new free trade undertakings permitted them to access. Today there is almost as much investment from Canada in the U.S. as there is from the U.S. in Canada.
If you add to the close integration of our economies, the almost 200 years of good will and mutually supportive policies, punctuated by periods when we have been comrades in arms, it is no surprise that our two nations have been very successful in their relationship.
Editor: We have had our differences from time to time, but they have never derailed the relationship.
Wilson: For the most part, we have handled our differences well, and I think that is a result of the confidence and trust that exists between our countries. On BSE - mad cow disease - for example, we agreed to base our decisions on science, not politics. That is a reflection of the value we both accord a scientific base to a discussion of this kind, as well as to the trust we have in each other's acceptance of that base. On softwood lumber, the laying on of hands by the President and the Prime Minister - in recognition that the resolution of this issue was long overdue - has opened the way to agreement on a dispute that has been with us for some 25 years. I think it was that confidence and trust in the relationship, as reflected by our Chief Executives, that permitted the negotiators to move toward the resolution of a dispute that many regarded as all but intractable.
Editor: You have recently spoken about four keys elements in the Canadian-American relationship. Would you share them with us?
Wilson: The first of these is our common heritage of freedom under the rule of law, which includes respect for human rights and the promotion of democratic values. This has been fundamental to the evolution of both Canada and the United States. It is absolutely basic to the values to which each country ascribes. Each country's perception of the other draws upon these common values and provides a very solid basis for the relationship.
As a consequence of this heritage, our security concerns are perceived through a common prism and as a common challenge. We have worked together in meeting this challenge for many years, through war and peace and a variety of crises. This has drawn us quite close in this post 9-11 world.
The Canadian-American relationship also draws upon the enormous success of our economic integration. Without repeating what I have said about this success, I would point out that both countries have an interest in extending it to the rest of the Americas. This is a long-term goal, but I believe our continuing support for the principles underlying free trade and a level playing field in the international trading arena will serve, in time, to extend the benefits of free trade to all of the peoples of our hemisphere. In addition to being the right thing to do, that development will serve to enhance the security of both Canada and the U.S., as well as every other country that is able to participate.
The final point has to do with the Canadian government's domestic agenda and the relevance of that agenda for the American people. Over a number of years, and going back to the 1980s, Canada has been focused on getting the fundamentals right, which means basic policies designed to generate sustained growth, reducing inflation, and attaining and then maintaining a proper trade balance. As a result of this effort, Canada enjoys the best combination of economic indicators of any of the G-7 economies, and that is a very positive state of affairs for the U.S., as Canada's most important trading partner and neighbour. In addition, Canada is committed to improving the competitiveness of its economy. We are partners with both Mexico and the U.S. in the Security and Prosperity Partnership. The more competitive each country's economy is, the more prosperity it enjoys and, consequently, the stronger its security. And speaking of security, what we in Canada have done to make our borders more secure - this includes border control, border surveillance, intelligence gathering, the sharing of information, immigration and the like - is of immense importance to the U.S. Our vigilance serves to make people in the U.S. safer, and at the same time it contributes to the security of our own people. This contribution, if I may use that term, of the Canadian government to the common security of both of our countries is now one of the significant aspects of the relationship.
Editor: Notwithstanding the close relationship between the two countries, in much of the world Canada enjoys much greater esteem than Uncle Sam. Are we Americans missing something?
Wilson: To a certain extent, the attitude that some people in other countries have toward the United States is a reflection of the position the country occupies in today's world. With the world's largest economy, its most powerful military establishment, and its strong voice in virtually all global institutions, the U.S. attracts a great deal of attention and not a little resentment. We live in a very complicated world, and we face a variety of challenges. The positions that Canada takes on these issues has less impact on other countries, and therefore their reaction, either positive or negative, will naturally be more muted.
Published October 1, 2006.