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Mulroney offers Harper tip on how to get security-perimeter deal with U.S.

Of all the obstacles the Harper government must overcome if it is to reach a comprehensive agreement on a continental security perimeter, America's amiable indifference to its northern neighbour may be the biggest.

Canada has probably never garnered the attention it deserves in the U.S. capital, not even when British troops torched the White House two centuries ago. Sadly, it now seems Canada gets mentioned only in stories on the Arctic weather - of which there has been a lot this winter - and Justin Bieber.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will have his hands full at home persuading voters, stoked by inevitable opposition taunts that he is selling out Canadian sovereignty, that closer integration with the United States is in the interests of both countries.

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But unless he can secure the commitment of President Barack Obama long enough to negotiate a meaningful deal, and engage legislators long enough to get it through Congress, he won't have to worry about selling it to the Canadian public. There will be nothing to sell.

Take it from someone who knows.

"If you don't have a friendly and constructive personal relationship with the president of the United States, nothing is going to happen," former prime minister Brian Mulroney offered after a Friday speech at a Washington conference examining Ronald Reagan's foreign policy legacy.

The 40th U.S. president would have turned 100 on Feb. 6, and the centennial of his birth is being marked in grand style. Mr. Mulroney, who turns 72 next month, was chosen to deliver the keynote address at Friday's conference because, "on the global scale, perhaps no one was closer to Ronald Reagan," explained Gerald Baliles, director of the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.

The Miller Center, which organized the conference, is a good example of how well Americans preserve their political memory. Its Presidential Oral History Project involves "comprehensively debriefing the principal figures" of past administrations for insights unearthed elsewhere.

The center's "debriefing" of Mr. Reagan's national security adviser, Frank Carlucci, revealed the extent of the late president's fondness for Mr. Mulroney and personal investment in his Canadian friend's political fate.

At a summit in Ottawa in 1987 - at which bilateral agreements on arctic sovereignty, free trade and acid rain were on the table - Mr. Reagan told Mr. Carlucci: "I think we should do something for Brian." When Mr. Carlucci objected, his boss did not mince words: "You do it."

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By all accounts, Mr. Harper is unable to rely on that kind of partnership with Mr. Obama to ensure that Canada's priorities get special consideration at the White House. It remains to be seen whether the President's appointees to the Beyond the Borders Working Group that will come up with proposals for a Canada-U.S. security perimeter will receive the same "you do it" instructions from their leader.

Indeed, Canada's influence in Washington during the Mulroney years may be impossible to replicate. It was an extraordinary accident of history that brought Mr. Mulroney together with Canada's shrewd and tireless ambassador in Washington at the time. Allan Gotlieb was a Pierre Trudeau appointee. But together they made history.

Canada's current U.S. ambassador, former Manitoba premier Gary Doer, was unable to attend Mr. Mulroney's speech. But he didn't need to in order to understand that getting Americans to agree to one major bilateral agreement - much less three - will be a feat in itself.

"The world has changed for all of us since 9/11. …So it will be more difficult for Mr. Harper than it was for me," Mr. Mulroney said of Americans' heightened focus on border security. "But there are still great things that can and will be achieved."

Not surprisingly, the former prime minister is a strong supporter of Mr. Harper's initiative and thinks his successor could secure his own place in history with it: "If he succeeds with this, he will have accomplished something very significant."

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has warned that "the Conservatives seem ready to provide the U.S. government with unprecedented amounts of private information about Canadian travellers" and possibly even cede sovereignty over Canadian immigration to U.S. legislators. This is reminiscent of the charges Mr. Mulroney had to defend himself against as he negotiated the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement.

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"This is like a re-run of 1988," Mr. Mulroney quipped, referring to the bitter free-trade election of that year. "Ask Canadians to choose between a big idea and this trivia and trash that goes on the other side and they'll choose the big idea 10 times out of 10."

And in case Mr. Harper needs a hand selling his ideas in Washington, he knows who to call. Mr. Mulroney dined on Thursday evening with Democratic senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Tom Udall of New Mexico, along with a small circle of Beltway insiders. He maintains strong links to Republicans, now in the majority in the House of Representatives.

A re-run of 1988, indeed.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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