Listening in on Brian Mulroney and George H.W. Bush

By Asa McKercher, Royal Military College of Canada |

As several recent articles attest, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Although he left the Prime Minister’s Office amid scandal and historically low approval ratings – indeed in the election held soon after his departure, the Progressive Conservative Party was reduced to two seats in the House of Commons – his reputation has been burnished at least in some policy areas. Notable in this regard has been foreign policy, where analysts have offered words of praise for Mulroney’s principled response to South African apartheid, for his foresighted forays into environmental diplomacy, and for holding aloft the torch for peacekeeping. Given my own interest in Canadian-American relations, of interest to me is the praise directed toward Mulroney for his efforts to foster a close Canada-US relationship. With Mulroney touted in the media as a ‘Trump Whisperer’ thanks to his personal ties to the 45th president, Justin Trudeau sought out his predecessor’s advice over how to approach negotiations to save the North American Free Trade Agreement. There were positive noises after Mulroney delivered a eulogy for former president George H.W Bush (he spoke, too, at the funerals of Ronald and Nancy Reagan). That Bush and Mulroney were close is no secret. Indeed, their political fortunes were bound up together: Bush’s election to the presidency fell on 8 November 1988, two weeks before Canada’s free trade election that saw the Tories re-form government albeit with a reduced majority.

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and President George Bush throw out the opening pitch of the Toronto Blue Jays home opener in Toronto on April 10, 1990. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Praise for Mulroney’s close relationship with American officials is somewhat of a surprise given that throughout much of his premiership he was strongly criticized for being too close to the United States and for selling out Canada via the 1988 Free Trade Agreement. While his policies did find support in Canada, at the same time many satirists, journalists, academics, and other standard bearers for the anti-American inflected variety of Canadian nationalism denounced him as a “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” That much of these criticisms have been largely muted over the past few years says something, perhaps, about how the passage of time has softened criticisms either of Mulroney or free trade with the United States. As for what the historical record might tell us about Mulroney’s dealings with his American counterparts – and US policy toward Canada during his time in office – recently declassified transcripts of President Bush’s telephone conversations and meetings with foreign leaders provide helpful insights into the personal relationship undergirding bilateral relations, the conduct of that relationship, and Canadian and US foreign policy in the Bush-Mulroney years more generally. In the spirit of the Canadian Eyes Only blog, below I highlight some – though certainly not all – of the interesting findings revealed in this unique source.

  • As his detractors feared, Mulroney was keen to align Canada with the United States and keep the bilateral relationship in good repair. During their first meeting after the president’s inauguration (they had met several times when Bush served as Reagan’s vice president), Mulroney delivered “a warm welcome, stressing the government’s loyalty and friendship for the United States. The relationship is complicated, and there is anti-American feeling in Canada. However, the November 21 election [in Canada] demonstrated that this sentiment did not run deep…he would deal honestly and above board and that when the United States needed help, Canada would be there. He said he regarded the President as leader of the Alliance.”
  • In 2006, Mulroney was named Canada’s Greenest Prime Minister by Corporate Knights, a Toronto-based company promoting green capitalism. Certainly, he felt deeply about the environment and about international action to address environmental issues. “We need to look at environmental indicators, Brazilian [rain]forest, and global warming,” he told his fellow Group of 7 leaders in 1990. Moreover, Mulroney pressed his American counterpart to take these matters seriously. In 1989, he had stressed to Bush “that the environment was becoming a prominent foreign policy issue; it was important that the US exercise leadership in this area. Acid rain was important to him from a selfish perspective, but also for the U.S. international leadership role.” Having bedevilled bilateral relations during the Reagan-Mulroney period, acid rain was an issue where Canada’s prime minister had pressed US authorities for action. With little success, Mulroney had faced mounting criticism among Canadians either concerned with the environment or hoping to score political points by undermining the Tory PM’s claims to special influence in Washington. To Bush, “Mulroney said that he had suffered in silence on this issue for the last 5 years. He would not criticize the President’s esteemed predecessor, but every time he had gone back to Canada he had nothing to show for his visits and he had had to bite his tongue and take a lot of flack.” Unlike Reagan, Bush proved helpful on this matter, leading to the Canada-United States Air Quality Agreement in 1991.
  • Bush has been credited with being a highly capable statesman, cognisant of the domestic political issues bearing upon his international counterparts’ room for maneuver. Certainly, his dealings with Mulroney bear out this view. In early 1989, after reviewing American political issues, “The President said that they had talked about his problems – but how were things with Mulroney.” Later that year, sounding out Mulroney on the feasibility of a joint meeting with Mexico’s president to get the ball rolling on a continental free trade agreement, Bush emphasized that he “did not want to give the impression of pushing Canada into some sort of North American trading block,” adding, “I’m also sensitive to the trade issue in Canada, and how it nearly cost you your job.” Bush was indeed mindful of the anti-American strain of nationalism in Canada and so he was full of praise for Mulroney’s public support for US policy. After the prime minister defended the American invasion of Panama, the president called to say, “you were magnificent. I know that a number of people in Parliament jumped on you for your support of what we were doing.” A year later, as the Gulf War drew to a close, Bush expressed to Mulroney that “we’re very grateful to you personally,” for defending the intervention against Iraq and for contributing military forces. “It isn’t easy to get up there with that cantankerous parliament of yours.”
  • When it came to the Gulf War, Mulroney was keen to demonstrate Canadian – and therefore multilateral – support for the United States. For instance, he recounted for Bush a discussion with Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke during which they had decided to commit naval forces to a blockade of Iraq. “I said ‘Bob, we are by no means a superpower, but I could understand the benefit to the President of the United States’” of a multilateral coalition. “I said ‘we will join in and support the effort.’” Bush was thankful for this show of support, as well as for Mulroney’s backing more generally. After the prime minister visited the White House for talks on the growing standoff over Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the president told his Canadian counterpart that his “visit here was very important. It emphasized the multinational aspect. This sends a good signal, that it is not just the U.S. taking some kind of vengeance against Iraq.” Encompassing not only three naval vessels but a field hospital and RCAF fighters, Canada’s military presence was small in comparison to the overall American commitment to Kuwait’s liberation. Its importance, however, was political. In mid-February 1991, with the coalition campaign ongoing, the prime minister informed Bush that the Canadian Cabinet had “changed the tasking of our CF-18s to include air-to-ground support in order to be more active in the war, including on Iraqi territory. We want to step up our solidarity under your leadership.” As Mulroney emphasized, this change was small “but psychologically I thought it might help,” adding, “we will be with you all the way.” With the war drawing to a close in late February, Mulroney was full of praise: “I just want to say that obviously it was a great military victory, but the military victory was eclipsed by the political leadership.”
  • While supportive of American leadership, Mulroney also championed the United Nations, impressing upon his fellow Group of 7 leaders the “need to strengthen the UN” and build upon the successful collective security effort shown in the Gulf War. In this regard, he committed Canada to nearly a dozen new peacekeeping missions, including the UN Protection Force in the former Yugoslavia. “We have almost 1,500 Canadian troops assigned to the UN there,” he informed Bush in mid-1992. In an appeal for US help, he stressed that “The situation is getting critical. The cruelty unimaginable” and added that “we have to begin – undercover of the UN – to come together again like we did before. With your military assets, we will look to you to lead this international effort, and Canada will vigorously support it.” Mulroney even put the issue in personal terms, telling Bush that “Mila was born in Sarajevo, so I have a little first hand knowledge about the racial and ethnic difficulties.”
  • In foreign policy terms, the highlight of the Bush presidency was the peaceful winding up of the cold war in Europe. In this task, Mulroney gave his full support. and serving the US president as a source of information, encouragement, and advice. In October 1989, Bush had Mulroney carry messages of reassurance to Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet premier, noting that “the Soviets value their ties to Canada” particularly given that Alexander Yakovlev, the intellectual force behind Gorbachev’s reforms, had been the former ambassador in Ottawa. Bush was keen to relay to the Soviets that with peaceful revolutions breaking out across the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, he was “feeling a lot of domestic political pressure to stand on the Berlin Wall and ‘beat my chest’. I have avoided doing anything like this because I have wanted to hold down emotions here in the U.S” After delivering Bush’s messages, Mulroney offered the president his impressions of the historic changes taking place behind the iron curtain. Urging Bush to respond with a certain humility, he told “said to the President, ‘If you take care, yet lend a hand, you and Gorbachev will walk together into the history books.’”
  • Mulroney’s enthusiasm for the drawing down of the cold war extended beyond the hopes of fostering productive US-Soviet relations. Rather, he embraced the idea of assisting Gorbachev in mounting political and economic reforms and he was mindful of the need to support the fledging post-Soviet governments. At the July 1990 Group of 7 meetings, Canada’s prime minister highlighted the “need to consolidate the positive things that have happened in Eastern Europe…We need to consider how the G-7 should address the Soviet problem. I would like an economic signal to Gorbachev that will be equally strong as the political signal from the NATO meeting. Gorbachev has asked for our help. He has confessed that his system is obsolete and asked for our support, credit, personnel training etc….We need a multilateral dialogue with the USSR.” The Soviet leader, he added, “personally knows all of us at this table. CNN is covering the world. We watch him, he watches us. He knows that we know that he is on the ropes. He is waiting to see how we will respond. Gorbachev will not forget it if we stiff him now. We need a dialogue going.” As evidence that the changes taking place in the Soviet Union were real and that Gorbachev was sincere in his desire to loosen the state’s economic controls, Mulroney pointed to the fact that “McDonalds of Canada has opened up a Moscow store. It took seven years to get the thing set up. 20,000 people applied for the Moscow McDonald’s 700 job openings.” Serving the Bolshoi Mac, the opening of these McDonald’s restaurants – run by the American company’s Canadian subsidiary of – encapsulated the US economic and cultural power that proved so important to its victory over the Soviet system.
  • Some Western European leaders resented Canadian advice on the post-cold war restructuring of the continent. But Mulroney staked out a tough line, telling Bush that Canadians had a right to involve themselves in European affairs. “If people want to know how Canada paid for its seat in Europe, they should check out the graves in Belgium and France.” “On the subject of European architecture,” he added in a later conversation, “we do not like structures that do not include the U.S. and North America.” Bush, shared this view and implored Mulroney to retain a Canadian military presence in Europe even as the winding down of cold war tensions lessened the need for a military commitment to NATO. “We need you,” he told the prime minister, “even if there is pressure here to the contrary, perhaps worse than we feel. But in the U.S. too, there is talk of a peace dividend.” When it came to post-Cold War security in Europe, Mulroney looked back to the creation of NATO, informing the president of “Lester Pearson and his work in the Atlantic Alliance. He got NATO to include responsibilities other than military ones. The Alliance is designed to deal with an era like that of today. NATO is no less needed now.” Bush subsequently began referring to NATO article 2 in speeches and public comments. As he explained to Mulroney, “Listen, Brian, I want you to know that when Mulroney calls, I listen. You suggested I take a look at Article II of the NATO Treaty and the words of Lester Pearson (President read aloud text of Article II). I think this is damn good language that could help convince Gorbachev not to see NATO as a threat.”
  • Invested in his friend’s re-election, Mulroney offered Bush political advice. In late 1991, he urged the president: “Don’t change course and keep the high ground of Presidential moral authority on foreign policy. The high ground on moral authority is absolutely indispensable to the well-being of America. Keep domestic policy initiatives oriented to the broad middle-class and any economic initiatives focussed on job creation. The most important dimension of the American psyche that I have observed as a student of American politics is that they have pride. Americans have developed a sense of pride in four things: national security, national defense, a growing economy and an admiration for its leader, and you’ve got all four.” The following autumn, in advance of the presidential debates between Bush and Bill Clinton, the Democratic challenger, Mulroney reflected on his own experience, noting, “I won in ’84 in space of 37 seconds during a debate. In ’88 I almost lost the election during the debates. You need a series of lines to get out no matter what. Regardless of what the question is, get your message out. You’ve got to cut, cut, cut. And when he’s down, stomp on him.” “That’s hardly Presidential!” Bush responded.

One thought on “Listening in on Brian Mulroney and George H.W. Bush

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of May 12, 2019 | Unwritten Histories

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