Mulroney: US-Canada relationship ‘based on shared fundamental values’

One of the United States’ most faithful and strategic allies of the 1980s and early ’90s, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, gave an impassioned speech on the importance of the two countries’ relationship April 17 at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney addresses the audience gathered in Baker Hall’s Doré Commons Wednesday for his Baker Prize speech. Photos courtesy of Michael Stravato/Rice’s Baker Institute

Mulroney’s remarks came at an event where he was awarded the James A. Baker III Prize for Excellence in Leadership honoring his decadeslong career as a global leader and visionary.

“Fifty or a hundred years from now, the principal international responsibility of the prime minister of Canada will be precisely what it is today: the leadership and management of our relationship with the United States of America,” said Mulroney, whose tenure from 1984 to 1993 took place during a pivotal geopolitical era spanning three U.S. presidencies.

“This special relationship of two great nations is based on shared fundamental values — liberty and democracy — and we did not hesitate to defend them from attack,” Mulroney said. “There are reminders of that from the trenches of one war to the beaches of the next: places inscribed in the history of valor, where Canadians and Americans have fought together and Canadians and Americans have died together in the defense of freedom.”

The relationship between the two countries, “so indispensable to our economic well-being and national security, requires skill, sensitivity and an awareness of the nuances of opinion and power in the White House, the Congress, media and interest groups,” Mulroney said. “In other words, our prime ministers must understand the special responsibility that the United States bears in this new international order.”

Mulroney said Canadian prime ministers can offer a critical voice of balance and perspective to a U.S. president.

“Having established a relationship of friendship and trust and mutual respect with the president, as Jim Baker can strongly attest to the many meetings where this took place, (the Canadian prime minister) is uniquely situated and qualified through ongoing private dialogue to influence decisions that ensure that America’s enormous power is not used as a giant.

“My experience has been that when presidents and their key advisers listen carefully to Canadian prime ministers and others, there are beneficial impacts on policies, making them more thoughtful and more respectful of the sensitivities and needs of the international community and its multilateral institutions.”

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III presents Mulroney with the Baker Prize for Excellence in Leadership

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III presents Mulroney with the Baker Prize for Excellence in Leadership.

While he was in office, Mulroney advanced policies that continue to foster economic growth and environmental sustainability, and pursued bold new initiatives such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Canada-U.S. Air Quality Agreement.

“(NAFTA) marked the first time in world history that a trade agreement would exist between two powerful industrialized nations — the United States and Canada, both G7 countries — and a developing country, Mexico,” Mulroney said. “NAFTA, with 500 million people, is now the largest, richest and most dynamic free-trade area in the world, with a combined GDP of almost $22 trillion a year.”

Mulroney has also been lauded for his commitment to social justice and equality, receiving high honors from multiple governments for his efforts to combat apartheid in South Africa and to promote rights for Canadians with disabilities.

‘You can’t be chasing 15 rabbits’

Mulroney, who was joined at the Baker Institute by his wife, Mila, was introduced by Baker, the former U.S. secretary of state and chief of staff to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who called Mulroney a “close personal friend.”

“For decades I have admired Brian as he guided his country through both tough times and good times,” said Baker, the honorary chair of the Baker Institute. “As Canada’s prime minister, he had a record of taking mighty swings at difficult issues. He always kept his eye focused on the big picture because, as he once explained, ‘You can’t be chasing 15 rabbits. Otherwise the public mind cannot follow you.’ So for a Canadian, I would submit to you that he speaks a lot like a Texan.”

Mulroney played a critical role in supporting the U.S.’s diplomatic and military efforts at the end of the Cold War and during the first Gulf War, Baker said.

“When some suggested that it was time for NATO to call it a day after the Soviet Union imploded, his was an active voice for preserving that alliance that had maintained peace in Europe since the end of World War II,” he said.

Baker also noted that the event took place on the one-year anniversary of the death of a dear friend of the Bakers and the Mulroneys, former first lady Barbara Bush.

“The first lady and her husband were extremely close personal friends with both Brian and Mila,” Baker said. “So I suspect that the president and Barbara are up there in heaven right now looking down on us and wondering why we didn’t give him the award many years ago.”

The James A. Baker III Prize for Excellence in Leadership recognizes nationally and internationally renowned individuals for outstanding achievements in government, business, science, education or philanthropy. It is awarded to those who exemplify the vision of building “a bridge between the world of ideas and the world of action,” conceived by Baker when he established the Baker Institute. Recipients embody the institute’s mission to nurture the ties between academia, government and the private sector.

Past recipients include Marguerite Barankitse (2017), L.E. and Virginia Simmons (2015), Hushang Ansary (2013), Robert McNair (2009), retired Gen. Colin Powell (2007) and Charles Duncan (2006).

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.