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Gary Doer, Canada's ambassador-designate to the United States, laughs after speaking to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on Aug. 28, 2009. Also pictured are Prime Minister Stephen Harper's deputy press secretaries Andrew MacDougall and Karine Leroux. (CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters)
Gary Doer, Canada's ambassador-designate to the United States, laughs after speaking to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on Aug. 28, 2009. Also pictured are Prime Minister Stephen Harper's deputy press secretaries Andrew MacDougall and Karine Leroux. (CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters)

Doer a 'cunning' choice for U.S. envoy - and a test of PM's grip Add to ...

The degree of autonomy Gary Doer can expect to wield as he embarks on a new ambassadorship in Washington hinges on the terms of the private deal he struck with the Prime Minister.

Renowned Canadian diplomat Stephen Lewis, the only other NDP stalwart to serve a Tory government in a high-profile diplomatic posting, said his own success as Canada's ambassador to the United Nations in the 1980s was a direct product of his easy access to then-prime-minister Brian Mulroney, which helped him avoid some of the constraints that can stifle diplomats.

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The ability of Mr. Doer, who is stepping down as Premier of Manitoba, to make an impact in Washington "depends on the personal relationship with Stephen Harper and what they said to each other in the conversation [Friday]morning," said Mr. Lewis, who used his appointment as a launching pad for a distinguished, two-decade career with the UN.

"I was independent and determined to be autonomous and frequently in touch with the prime minister," he said in an interview.

"If I hadn't had the prime minister, it absolutely wouldn't have worked. I owe a debt to Mulroney for that. He made it possible to function in that role."

The comparison between the appointments of Mr. Lewis and Mr. Doer is inexact: While Mr. Lewis was assigned to a multilateral body dealing with international issues, Mr. Doer's position is more political and centres on steadying Canada's orbit in the realm of the world's dominant superpower.

"Our relationship with Washington has become hugely problematic and much more challenging with this new administration," said Fen Hampson, head of Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. In selecting Mr. Doer, he said, Mr. Harper is "sending a very strong message that we're onside, not offside."

"Doer obviously has a good personal relationship with the Prime Minister … and Americans will know he's someone who can pick up the phone and call the Prime Minister," Mr. Hampson said. "In some ways, you can say that by appointing Doer, Harper is saying that our own partisan politics stop at the Canada-U.S. border. This is … a stunning appointment, but it's also a cunning appointment."

Mr. Lewis, who maintains ties with Washington, predicts Mr. Doer will be well received by the Obama administration, but said the three-time Premier has his work cut out for him.

"It's very good for Canada, and the Americans will love him. He's such a bright, accessible, thoughtful, progressive person," Mr. Lewis said. "I think he'll make a very strong impression in Washington. But I don't think it'll be easy."

The reins from Ottawa to Washington are sure to be held much tighter than Mr. Lewis's were two decades ago, a fact that will serve as a sharp reminder that Mr. Doer has transitioned from politician into "a civil servant reporting to civil servants."

"It's a bit of a shock when you get into the role and realize that you're much more shackled," Mr. Lewis recalled. "I was very lucky because of the relationship with the prime minister … but Foreign Affairs [bureaucrats]dictate the content of what you say and do in significant measure. They can write the speeches and insist that you deliver them, and they make sure that the talking points on your policy briefs are adhered to," he said, adding: "You're sort of unprepared for it. And I think I learned over time that you shouldn't be constrained by it."

Mr. Hampson isn't concerned about the diplomatic constraints Mr. Doer might face. He judges the Manitoban as fit to handle "the glad-handing skills, but also [possessing]the credibility to be able to take the Canadian message on energy, on environment, on climate change, on the economy to Congress, and, quite frankly … the physical stamina and energy to keep at it."

Follow on Twitter: @jessleeder

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