There’s a scarcity of ambassadors

The Fourth of July celebrations were marked in a not-so-usual way in Canada’s capital this year, in keeping with the unusual twists and turns that have defined Canada-U.S. relations since Donald Trump came to power.

The Americans’ annual party in Ottawa was moved downtown, to the National Arts Centre, from the sweeping grounds of the ambassador’s residence in Rockcliffe.

The United States, as it turns out, is kind of in between ambassadors to Canada at the moment, while the current one, Kelly Craft, awaits ratification to her new post as the U.S. representative at the United Nations.

Coincidentally, China is also going without an ambassador to Canada at present, after the most recent one, Lu Shaye, recently left for a new post in Paris.

No replacement is on the immediate horizon. The ambassadorial absence, in this case, is mutual: Canada hasn’t installed anyone new in Beijing since John McCallum walked into controversy and out of his post at the very beginning of this year.

What does it say about diplomatic life right now that the two countries at the top of Canada’s current foreign-policy agenda — the United States and China — have Canadian ambassadorial posts in limbo?

Certainly, beyond this coincidence, these are the two superpowers most transformed in the four years since Justin Trudeau came to power.

Trump’s election in 2016 dashed Canadian Liberals’ dreams of a progressive alliance with the neighbour to the south, while Canada-China relations are, to say the least, hardly on the stable, friendly footing that Trudeau hoped to establish on his first trip to that country in 2016.

Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat who served at a number of posts in the U.S. and Hong Kong, warns not to read too much into the dual vacancies at the U.S. and China embassies.

Certainly, Canada-China relations are currently in a “deep freeze,” says Robertson, and it’s not clear that having ambassadors in either capital, for either country, would be much help.

Contact is being maintained by others, whether it’s more junior diplomatic staff, business connections between the two countries or even friendly allies, like Trump, when they speak to the Chinese leadership.

The United States is another case altogether. Craft has recently faced allegations that even before her nomination to the UN, she was an absentee ambassador for Canada.

During her confirmation hearing at the U.S. Senate foreign relations committee, Craft was questioned about records showing that she was actually in Canada for only about 300 days, roughly half her total tenure.

But officials close to Trudeau say Craft was extremely effective and helpful during the marathon free-trade negotiations last fall, and Robertson sees signs that Craft remains a force on the job, even as she’s departing.

Craft’s major skill, no small one in Trumpland, was knowing who to call to get things done at the White House.

The U.S., unlike China, also appears to be working actively on finding a successor to Craft. A couple of recent news reports have named Aldona Wos, a big Republican donor from North Carolina and former U.S. ambassador to Estonia, as a likely pick.

Ambassadors still matter, says Robertson, and one need only look to Canada’s current representative in Washington, David MacNaughton, for evidence.

MacNaughton is given huge credit for navigating the unpredictable Trump presidency and pulling it back from last year’s nadir — when Trump was calling Trudeau “dishonest” and “weak” — into the warm glow that surrounded the two leaders in Washington a couple of weeks ago.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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