Canada has a privileged relationship with the United States that shouldn't be squandered, even at a time when U.S. world leadership is waning and new superpowers are emerging, Brian Mulroney says.
"The resilience of America should never be discounted," the former prime minister said in a luncheon speech on Thursday.
"The need for Canada to safeguard and nurture our interests vis-à-vis America will always – certainly in my lifetime and the lifetime of my children – be the top foreign policy priority of the prime minister of Canada."
Mr. Mulroney spoke at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs during an invitation-only conference paying tribute to Allan Gotlieb, the Canadian ambassador in Washington from 1981 to 1989.
The former Progressive Conservative prime minister said that the touchstones of his government, such as the free-trade agreement, are testaments to Mr. Gotlieb's diplomatic skills and the importance of cultivating good ties with the United States.
Having ins at the White House also means, Mr. Mulroney said, that he could privately tell George H. W. Bush that Canada wouldn't be onside unless the president sought a United Nations resolution before going to war against Iraq in 1991.
"You have to have quite a relationship to be able to say that," he said, asking how the world would be different if George W. Bush had received and heeded similar advice before invading Iraq in 2003.
Mr. Mulroney recalled that he disagreed with Ronald Reagan on issues ranging from the "Star Wars" strategic defence initiative to apartheid or Cuba. However, such divergences were always expressed in a respectful manner, he said.
For example, he said he assured Mr. Reagan that Canada's opposition to SDI would be carried out with "absolutely no moral grandstanding from our side of the House of Commons."
In return, he said, having the ear of Mr. Reagan or Mr. Bush ensured that the U.S. presidents sometimes overrode their advisers and were sympathetic to Canada in files such as the acid-rain treaty. "They knew it was a festering, debilitating problem for Canada."
In "some corners of this city," Mr. Mulroney said, a close bond with the United States is viewed with scorn by "supercilious and uninformed" critics.
Mr. Mulroney also alluded to his present situation and the outcry over revelations that he accepted cash from lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber shortly after leaving office.
"I believe in judging people and governments by results, not myths," Mr. Mulroney said.
Sir John A. Macdonald was Canada's greatest prime minister even though he was described by the newspapers of his day as a "rascally old thief," Mr. Mulroney said.
"This is our George Washington. What the hell? Some things don't change."