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Kelly Craft must mend relationship between old friends at odds

Kelly Craft presents her credentials to Governor-General Julie Payette on Monday, taking up residence as the 31st ambassador of the United States to Canada. None of her predecessors faced what she faces.

The disputes between the two countries threaten the foundations of what used to be the world's closest bilateral relationship. Ottawa and Washington are diametrically opposed on a raft of major issues. Most Canadians dislike and distrust President Donald Trump, who may become one of the few presidents since Franklin Roosevelt not to visit Ottawa.

Other than that, things are fine.

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David Jacobson was U.S. ambassador during Barack Obama's first term. Polls showed 80 per cent of Canadians approved of the president.

Related: New U.S. envoy Kelly Craft vows to make trade, travel with Canada 'easier'

"I always felt I had the wind at my back," Mr. Jacobson said in an interview. But an Ekos poll showed 80 per cent of Canadians disapprove of Mr. Trump. "Whatever I felt blowing at my back, Ambassador Craft may feel blowing in her face."

The most important file, by far, is the troubled NAFTA renegotiations. The Americans inserted so many poison pills into last week's talks in Washington that they should have been charged with attempted murder.

The question now, as all sides prepare for the next round in Mexico City, is whether the United States genuinely wants to renew the free-trade agreement or intends to simply walk away from it. As ambassador, Ms. Craft's job is to persuade Canadians that the Americans are sincerely interested in reaching a deal, while making sure Washington understands that there is no way the Canadians will put up with things such as a five-year expiration date or an end to dispute-resolution mechanisms.

Others have been working this file for months, including Canadian Ambassador David MacNaughton. Ms. Craft has some catching up to do.

Climate change is another major irritant between the two countries. The Trump administration served notice that the United States will withdraw from the Paris accord, even as the Trudeau government implements a national carbon strategy to meet Canada's commitments.

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On this crucial file, Ms. Craft will arrive with baggage. Her husband, Joe Craft, owns Alliance Resource Partners, one of the biggest coal-mining operations in the eastern United States.

Canada continues to robustly support NATO; Mr. Trump thinks it's freeloading. The President is friendly with Russian leader Vladimir Putin; Canada's relations with Moscow are so icy that Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has been banned from entering the country. The Trudeau government is angling for a seat on the United Nations Security Council; the Trump administration just pulled the United States out of UNESCO. Bombardier. Softwood. It goes on.

Never, in the life of the two countries, have they disagreed on so much. For the first time in 35 years, when pollsters began asking the question, more Canadians view the United States unfavourably than favourably. I have spoken to people across this country about this President. Most don't just disapprove of him, they fear him. They fear that he could undermine U.S. democracy, cause an economic crisis or lead the world into nuclear war.

For Mr. Jacobson, the challenge for the new ambassador is to lower the temperature in the relationship, to focus on policy over personality, to explain the reasoning behind the American position on so many conflicting files and, more important, to explain this country to the administration in Washington.

"You have to explain to them what's doable and not doable, how things are going to be received and perceived by the Canadian government and the Canadian people," Mr. Jacobson said. "You have to help to set priorities."

The good news is, the new ambassador is said to be warm, personable, keenly intelligent and a good listener. "She's is truly a delightful person," said Mr. Jacobson, who met with her recently and came away impressed. "If anyone can succeed in the circumstances she is stepping into, it is someone like her."

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Canada and the United States both need Ms. Craft to succeed as ambassador to Canada. We wish her well. Although if Mr. Trump cancels NAFTA, she might as well go back to Kentucky.

Editor’s Note An earlier version of this article said Donald Trump could be the first elected president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt not to visit Ottawa. In fact, Jimmy Carter did not visit Canada while president.
New U.S. envoy says ‘there is no better posting than Canada’ (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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