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opinion

As you take up your responsibilities, I suspect the last thing you want is unsolicited advice about how to do your job. No doubt you've had your fill. But as Canada's longest-serving ambassador to Washington who worked under three prime ministers, I thought I'd give you some anyway. You might well ask whether experience in Washington gained a quarter of a century ago is of any relevance today. The answer, unfortunately, is a great deal.

Not long after I arrived, an influential insider told me: "In the theatre of Washington, the actors change but the play remains the same." I came to realize he was only half right. The play then, as today, is about the mighty battles fought on the Hill, led by congressional barons and powerful committee chairmen who write the laws of the land, flanked by legions of special interests who, in turn, write their script. But the players, too, are timeless.

In my years on the front lines defending Canadian interests, among the most influential were Henry Waxman and John Dingell in the House and Max Baucus in the Senate. Fast-forward 25 years and five presidents later: Who are playing key roles? Max Baucus, Henry Waxman and John Dingell. They and their colleagues are known as immortals in Washington's Forever Land. Every Canadian student should know that, in the House, incumbents enjoy a 90-per-cent re-election rate.

Barack Obama, mindful of the failure of his Democratic predecessors to capitalize on same-party control of both Houses, made a conscious decision to cede leadership to the Democratic legislative grandees in all the priority areas of his agenda - recovery and stimulus of the economy, clean air and climate change and health-care reform. But, as we are seeing, when one defers to Congress, one defers to the special interests with which the members permanently bond. So, today, the great battles are being waged in the Third House of Congress - the permanent assembly of lobbyists, consultants, lawyers and communications experts, spending on a scale never heretofore matched.

EXTENDED DOMESTIC POLICY

The relevance of this for Canadians is enormous because U.S. foreign policy toward Canada is not foreign policy at all, but an extension of U.S. domestic policy. Think Buy American in the stimulus bills, think carbon tariffs at our border or emissions standards in the climate-change bill that could impose huge penalties on our energy exports. Think Canada-U.S. border thickening and the domestic politics of the U.S. southern border.

So far as Canada is concerned, there are 535 foreign ministers on the Hill, each driven by constituency interests. Among this throng, Canada has no friends or enemies. Our allies on some issues are opponents on others. U.S. legislators are enfranchised by executive-like powers. Although Canada will usually remain far down the list of their priorities, they are the leading source of most of our conflicts. To cope with this reality is our ambassador's supreme challenge.

So how does Canada defend its interests? Obviously, we must exploit our assets. Canadians are well liked in Washington, and this means a lot of doors are open to us on Capitol Hill. At one time, for reasons of protocol, we were reluctant to enter them. This is no longer true, but the atomization of power and the vast reach of special interests mean that no ambassador can extend his network far enough.

A member of Congress opposed to a Canadian interest can rarely be persuaded to change positions. The ambassador, therefore, must form relationships, alliances and coalitions with other, largely disinterested legislators in an effort to counter initiatives harmful to us. The threats are countless, the victories rare and the terrain treacherous for a foreign diplomat. In Congress, to quote myself, Canada is just another special interest and not a very special one at that.

The critical players affecting our interests change from issue to issue, so your most daunting task is to build your Rolodex. It takes years to do so. No offence, but this is why I also believe our ambassador should be a career diplomat. Our envoy should not change when the government changes. This is the American way, and we don't need to import it into Canada.

MAINTAIN THAT ROLODEX

For more than 60 years, all our ambassadors to Washington were career officials. The last three, including yourself, have been ex-politicians. In Canadian constitutional terms, the ambassador is appointed by the Crown and represents not just the prime minister and federal governments but Canada as a whole. So when the government changes, the ambassador should not have to surrender his post. And say goodbye to his Rolodex.

The second supreme challenge you face is to gain close and easy contacts in the White House. The president is the best friend Canada has in Washington. Only in the White House and the administration does the vision extend beyond the purview of the special interests. It's in the executive branch, not Congress, where Canada's vital importance to U.S. national security interests are known and count for something. It is national security that differentiates us from most other nations and makes our relationship special.

If you do your job well, you'll be regarded by White House staff as a whiner, always asking them to intervene on "parochial" matters while they're concerned with the great international issues. At the same time, you must retain their goodwill - no easy trick. Ambassadors are not usually received in the White House. You must be one of the exceptions. We can win few battles if the president isn't on our side.

The third supreme challenge flows from the other two - to master the political culture of the Beltway and be a source of influence within it. You have mentioned your intention to tour the country. California will be a critical target, as it was of mine. But the Beltway constitutes the greatest concentration of political power in the history of the world (or since the Roman Empire). It's not the United States, but it's where the deals and decisions are made each minute of the day (and night). And so you'll find, as I did, that every day away from the capital is like being absent from the scene of the crime.

PERSONAL INFLUENCE

You'll also find that, in the Beltway, if you don't have a high profile, you don't exist. The lower the profile, the more difficult to gain access. This is why the media need to be an accomplice in your endeavours. Don't let the Prime Minister's Office prevent you from practising public diplomacy. That is your job. In achieving high public visibility, you have the advantage of having the status of ambassador, a role recognized in the Constitution. In fulfilling your mandate, you'll be greatly aided by the talent in the Canadian foreign service. But the access, as ambassador, will be largely yours.

My final suggestion is that you do everything you can, including using your personal influence with the Prime Minister, to ensure that the brightest and best work for you. Whatever I accomplished was made possible by my team, which included two future ambassadors to France, a future high commissioner to London, an ambassador to Russia, an ambassador to Germany and a chief of security intelligence.

Washington is packed with high-powered thinkers and think tanks, the source of much of U.S. foreign policy. The Canadian embassy must itself be a think tank. We must play in this league. If we don't, your embassy risks being regarded as belonging to the second tier. Canada will not be consulted on the great issues, and your access will be limited.

Allan Gotlieb, a senior adviser to the law firm Bennett Jones LLP, was Canada's ambassador in Washington from 1981 to 1989.